Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Close-to-Home Politics of Sports

Tuesday, 29 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

A few years ago I bought something I thought I would never need: A pair of cross-trainer walking shoes. Yes, it was time for me to take long walks to keep in shape. As anyone with a new idea, I was very enthusiastic, putting on my shoes in the early evening after work and heading for the local women's college in my neighborhood to join dozens of other women making the walk around the wall. This was pretty good for an hour or so to keep myself in shape.
I quickly noticed, though, that there weren't many places for women to exercise. Yes, we can buy a membership at an exercise club, but that is too expensive for many young ladies. So options for women are limited to neighborhoods that have sidewalks in good shape or around the walls surrounding Saudi Aramco or one of the women's college campuses.
It got me to thinking about my years in secondary school and I realized that I never once thought about the fact that I never had physical education or played in any organized school sport. That was for boys and it didn't occur to the girls ever to question our need for physical activity. We've been told often enough that it is not appropriate for girls to engage in strenuous activity. It is not ladylike, and well, we could get just plain too excited. And who wants budding teenage girls to get too excited?
My time for enjoying the exhilaration of playing school sports. Lost in my youth was the ability to learn about team unity, team support and building relationships with my girl classmates through a shared activity. Not to mention that it's healthy and keeps one fit. Maybe if we were afforded these opportunities, the obesity rate among Saudi women today would not be so high. Maybe we would be better businesswomen because we would understand better the concept of team-building and teamwork.
So I am happy to hear one report that says the General Presidency of Youth Welfare wants to establish a department for women's sports clubs. The proposal, according to some news reports, will be forwarded to King Abdullah for approval. This follows a recommendation from the youth and family affairs committee of the Shoura Council.
For as long as I can remember there has been pressure from some Saudis to resist the temptation to establish girls' sports clubs and physical education programs. But according to this plan, the proposed clubs will abide by Shariah and will be closely supervised to ensure that the programs are compliant with the Shariah rules.
It's one thing to establish a program, but another to fund it adequately. Apparently the Youth Welfare department will make sure that these new clubs will have all the necessary equipment and are managed by women. The clubs are to operate first in Jeddah, Dammam, Buraida and in Riyadh.
While the motives of establishing women's sports clubs are innocent, I must admit that there is probably a political motive as well. It's obvious to me that Saudi Arabia is doing everything possible under the direction of King Abdullah to become a leading member of the international community. We certainly have the economic resources and we have the will to think progressively in matters of business. But to be taken seriously by Europeans and Americans who want to do business with us, we must examine our domestic policies. And that means addressing women's rights.
Establishing women's sports clubs is not necessarily a women's rights issue as we usually define it, like driving a car. But sometimes perception is everything, and our business partners may perceive us as petty when it comes to not allowing women to have their own sports clubs. If we are perceived as unfair to someone based on gender, then how do we expect to be taken seriously in the business world.
And part of our standing in the international community comes with our participation in sports, such as our men's soccer clubs. In the case of women, the International Olympic Committee is requiring all of its member states to establish women's sports clubs by 2010 or risk having its membership frozen or revoked.
It appears that we have received the message and are responding appropriately.

No comments: