Thursday, February 25, 2021

Saudi women’s football league kicks off but cynics call it ‘sportswashing’

Many women still languish in prison after campaigning for the right to drive.

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Women’s football is now a fixture in most countries but in Saudi Arabia until 2018 women were not allowed to even enter football stadiums as spectators because religious authorities feared such a thing would inevitably provoke immorality.

Now, barely two years later, Saudi Arabia’s first women’s football league has kicked off. More than 600 players for 24 teams based in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam are competing for a championship cup and cash prize, the BBC reports.

The opening matches on Tuesday evening were not televised, but Saudi media hailed them as another step forward for women’s participation in sport.

Seven matches took place in the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea city of Jeddah on the opening day of the Saudi Women’s Football League (WFL), which had been due to kick off in March but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The results included an 11-0 win for Tigers over Jeddah Challenge, and a 10-1 victory for Al Riyadh United over Najd Al Riyady.

The government-run Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) said that through the WFL it was striving “to empower women and to encourage them to become active and to participate in sports at the community level”.

Abdullah Alyami, a Saudi football coach and sports journalist, told Arab News before Tuesday’s matches that it was a very happy day for all athletes, male or female. “Based on what we’ve seen, and how beloved the sport of football is all over the kingdom, I believe we will see many more of our sisters getting involved in professional sports,” he said.

Najla Ahmed, a 16-year-old from Riyadh who plays football for her school, told the newspaper that she would try out for a local team in 2021. “I’ll be 17, and therefore eligible, and I would love to see anyone try and stop me.”

The first Saudi Arabian international women’s golf tournament also took place this week, but many human rights organisations launched a campaign to boycott the Saudi Ladies International.

In an open letter, they gave examples of the women who still languish in prison after campaigning for the right to drive, reports “We are deeply concerned that Saudi Arabia is using this sports event as a public relations tool to sportswash its appalling human rights record, including discrimination against women and the crackdown on women’s rights defenders,” the letter said.

Many athletes are uncomfortable with the emergence of Saudi Arabia in women’s sport, enough so to reject opportunities that have long been unavailable to them. They do not wish to compete in a country where women are treated as second-class citizens.

For now, Saudi Arabia’s intentions in women’s sport should be scrutinised with a healthy dose of cynicism, they say.

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