Saturday, 13 September 2014

Saudi Arabian Sporting Dream

Did you know there was a Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation?  I wasn't aware of that till recently when I met a young Kiwi bloke who was working for them.  Not that it actually matters to me one way or another that such an organisation exists though I admit to being surprised that in a desert location full of folks who, till recently, haven't been encouraged to participate in a huge variety of sports, some Regal Type would assume there was a need for a national Swimming Federation.

But there you go... now I know that Saudis swim - not paddle about in knee deep water, but actually competitively swim - but only the blokes of course!  (*Rolling Eyes*).  I wasn't aware that the local male liked to compete in a pool, not to the extent they needed a swimming federation anyway.  But apparently, they do.

In fact, since finding out about the Swimming Federation I've also learnt, via Google while researching Saudi's and swimming, about the Saudi Coast Guard and Water Sports.  My first reaction to that Arab News article was 'Saudi has a Coast Guard!?'  My second reaction was a cynical sniff, mumbling something along the lines that 'women probably aren't included in any of the marine sport teams'.  I'd be surprised, though happy to learn, if women are actually in the Coast Guard.

Saudi also has a Saudi Arabian Maritime Sports Federation (SAMSF).   And they aim to provide maritime sport to residents and tourists!  No shizz!  Stuff like kayaking, diving, angling - in fact, if you visit the SAMSF Sports page you'll see all the sports they intend to provide.   It doesn't happen to mention anywhere that women will be offered these activities, but I'm sure that's just an oversight!

Am I being facetious, do I sound cynical?
I really ought to kick my own butt for being this way.  (Really I ought to. Thank goodness I can't!)

While out of Saudi for my very long summer break I've enjoyed watching women play touch rugby, girls playing basketball, loads of people cycling, (including myself), and top teams playing rugby league on the weekends with its mixed crowd of male and female spectators, young and old. It made me start to wonder how the hell I manage my sport fix in Saudi.  And the short answer is...not very well.

Till very recently, sport for women was practically non-existent in Saudi.  Even going to the gym was put on the 'not a female activity list' thanks to the  General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW), the agency responsible for all sporting, cultural and social activities in KSA.

The first time I saw the 'Sport For All' slogan emblazoned across the offices of the GPYW, I had to laugh.  It was just after they had closed all the women's gyms in Saudi down, their excuse for the closures being they didn't have any female officers to monitor ladies gyms, nor did they have an office in which to put them if they did have them.   Obviously at that time hiring a few women and finding a new office in which to house them was just too difficult a concept to comprehend, much less implement.  (I did wonder, though, who had been sent along to find all the existing women's gyms to shut them down.  Given men can't go into women's gyms they must have found some women somewhere to do that job!)  Equally obviously their slogan should have been 'Sport For All...Men'.   Back then, (a long three years ago), women were directed to the gentler cultural pursuits of art and poetry.  And I'm fairly certain there is a segment of the Saudi community that still thinks only two places women ought to be directed are the kitchen and the bedroom.

It grates me, as I drive around Riyadh, to see so many Fitness Time gyms going up for all the blokes. Currently women's gyms are few and far between, at risk of being closed again if the Bearded Ones don't like them, and they're not cheap to join.  (In typical Saudi style, after the hoopla of closing them down, women's gyms have kind of, sort of, but not really officially, been reopened if you know where to look.  This was, I presume, because the Ministry of Health, a much bigger official body, pointed out in a newspaper article, just over the page from the closing of gyms headlines, the extremely bad obesity figures for Saudi nationals - especially the women.  Somebody had to do a spot of back tracking me thinks).

Things are improving.

In early 2013 the first private sports club for females was opened in the eastern region (woop, woop).  And later in the year private schools got the official go ahead to offer sport for girls in schools - probably because they found out most western private schools were offering sports anyway.  But there is still a long way to go before women participating in sport in any capacity in this country is considered 'normal'.

Women aren't even encouraged to be spectators in sport...I know this from the performance over whether or not we female Kiwi expat supporters were allowed into the King Fahad International Stadium to watch the NZ Football Team playing in Riyadh in September last year.  (We managed to get in for the first game because nobody up the hierarchical chain got around to announcing an actual decision.  However, due to the fuss created we decided to graciously decline attendance at follow up games).

At the game.
The only other group of Kiwi supporters we could find.
The stadium was practically empty - loads of room for more women!
The kerfuffle could make bothering about sport in Saudi for women tiresome except that I've heard the new stadium in Jeddah has a dedicated family spectator section.  This is good news.  What would be awesome news is if this same stadium publicly supported women's football teams in Saudi Arabia.

In April this year everyone got excited with the idea that girls might soon be able to do sport in public schools.  But, according to Human Rights watch, the Ministry of Education must draft and present regulations that have to be approved by various advisory bodies before excited debate becomes a realty.  And given the other issues the Ministry of Education has to deal with (like training quality teachers to provide quality education in quality surrounds), full support of the sport issue might be put on the back burner for a little while yet.

If sport for girls in this country does become a normal reality, I'm going to have to take my cynical self and bury her.  I might also be able to ride my bicycle around the streets without wearing a disguise!  Life in Saudi is changing, maybe slowly, but changing regardless.   The reason for caution is the tightrope and subsequent balancing act that the government has to be mindful of for every change it wants to implement.  This article, 'Pulling the rug: girls’ sports and the erosion of Saudi religious authority', gives a pretty good account of the politicking and power plays going on behind the scenes.

Now that 'Sport for all' is beginning to include the female gender, lets hope soon the news headlines will be 'Saudi Women's Team Wins International Event' or  'Woman Heads Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation' or better yet 'Top Saudi Sports Woman Heads the GPYW'.  Now wouldn't that be something.

Ka Kite,

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