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Saudi women jump through many hoops for basketball team

The Jeddah United team in Saudi Arabia openly flaunts a ban on women's sports.

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The Jeddah United women's basketball team trickled onto the court, each player wrapped in a black abaya and head scarf. Within minutes, the women had shed their cloaks and were in uniform – white pants and jerseys with their names in red – practicing layups, passes, and foul shots.

The team, made up mostly of Saudi students and housewives, is preparing for a local tournament this month. But what the women would really love to do, many said, is compete internationally and represent their country abroad, something Saudi Arabia does not permit.

"We want to reach Olympic levels," said Shatha Bakhsh, a law student. "We have a lot of potential, but not the chance to show it."

Saudi Arabia follows a strict version of Islam that bans men and women from mingling and does not allow women to drive or to travel without a male guardian's permission. Powerful religious clerics also ban sports for girls in public schools, deeming it un-Islamic, and recently canceled two rare all-women's events, a soccer match and a marathon. Gyms for women were closed in the early 1990s and have been allowed to reopen, but only when affiliated with hospitals.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries competing in the Olympics without a female delegation. Though the kingdom has come under increasing pressure from the International Olympic Committee to include women on its team, many in this deeply patriarchal and traditional society agree with the restrictions, believing that allowing female athletes could lead to Western-style independence for women and an erosion of established culture.

But Lina al-Maeena, Jeddah United's founder and team captain, said women's sports are a positive force and should be an integral part of every young woman's life.

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