JEDDAH (Reuters) - A girls’ school in Saudi Arabia has defied a religious ban on female sports by erecting basketball hoops and letting pupils play at break-time, the daily al-Watan reported on Wednesday.
Powerful clerics in the conservative Islamic kingdom have long spoken against allowing girls to play sports, with one senior figure saying in 2009 it might lead them to lose their virginity by tearing their hymens.
Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islamic law prevents women from working, opening bank accounts or having some elective surgery without the permission of a male relative. They are not allowed to drive.
King Abdullah has pushed for women to have better opportunities in education and employment and last year said they could vote and run for office in future municipal elections, the only official polls in the monarchy.
The school in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province has now become the first state-run girls school openly to encourage sports, Watan reported, quoting a supervisor as saying it would expend pupils’ energy “in a positive way”.
Private girls schools already offer sports classes.
In recent months Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for having never fielded a woman athlete at the Olympics, with Human Rights Watch calling for it be barred from this year’s London games.
Amid mounting international scrutiny of the issue, local media reported this month that the deputy education minister for female student affairs, the kingdom’s first woman minister, was looking into setting up “a comprehensive physical education programme” for both sexes.
“The school administration is hoping to instill the importance of sports among the students and introduce them to its benefits, as well as allowing them to spend their spare time doing something beneficial,” Amina Bu Bsheit, a school supervisor, was quoted as saying by Watan.
She added that the school, which was not named in Watan’s report, still does not provide a physical education class but that the students play during weekly “activities classes”.
Reporting By Asma Alsharif; Editing By Angus McDowall and Alistair Lyon