Friday, April 11, 2014

Recreational outlets for women more important than ever

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 4/3/2013

N THE “hey-this-is-kinda-funny” category of newspaper reporting, the Saudi media published articles recently about Saudi women taking scuba diving lessons in the Red Sea and how they face the usual obstacles to practice their sport.
One reader remarked that there are more important issues facing Saudi women than whether they can scuba dive. Believe me, Dear Reader, I once agreed that the trivialities of swimming and driving cars pale in comparison to equal rights in domestic courts, obtaining employment and having the freedom not to have money a woman earns stolen by lay-about brothers and sons who have a sense of entitlement.
But that was then and this is now. There are no longer baby steps toward equality, but big, leaping strides. And if a woman wants to scuba dive, play football or take a job as a cashier at Danube, then it’s a meaningful step that shouldn’t be minimized by Saudi society.
According to press reports, Saudi women want designated areas to scuba dive in the Red Sea. The Coast Guard bans female divers who don’t have mahrams with them.
Perhaps equally important is the fact that there are few places that women can practice their sport. Further many women divers can’t find boats to take groups because PADI-certified women divers are so few. It makes such trips cost prohibitive.
There is a fair and equitable way for women to participate in recreational activities in a discreet and Islamic way. The answer is to allow women to form clubs that allow them to build memberships to provide private space for women to practice their sport without the interference of local authorities or busybodies who have nothing better to do than to say “no.”
Since safety for women is a the top concern among the men in the family, private clubs provide a way to ensure diving suits, tanks and masks are safe and appropriate for the sport. There are a number of female scuba diving instructors in Saudi Arabia that can provide instructors without indulging in mixing.
In this case, mixing is not really the issue unless the sharks in the water are male. All-female group outings under the supervision of certified female instructors make sense. It does not contradict our Islamic principals.
Despite the best efforts of the Labor Ministry to employ women, there is always this push-pull about what Saudi women should and shouldn’t be doing. For every action from the Labor Ministry that opens jobs for Saudi women, there is a reaction from the self-appointed Saudi society guardians to reduce our access to things that give us an outlet.
Recently, the people-who-know-better-than-me decided that a mall amusement park in Madinah had no purpose. On weekends, this amusement park was open to only women and children. Dads couldn’t even get in.
But our betters decided for reasons known only to them that the amusement park should be closed .
Some municipalities make it difficult for women to open or join fitness centers.
Female football and basketball clubs, which are beginning to become more socially acceptable, are still largely played in secret. Scuba diving and paragliding are just fantasies for many women.
Women and their children need safe and private places for recreation and leisure other than resorts. They need to be free of the mahram requirement as long as it is keeping with our culture and religion. Instead of finding reasons to keep women from enjoying these types of recreational activities, we should encourage it.
At the end of the day one door is opened for women while another is shut. So, if you don’t mind, I will take the little things like the right to scuba dive without a mahram as a major victory. To me, it is one of the more important issues facing women.

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