By RUTH RILEY
Picture a woman covered head to toe in a loose-fitting black robe, an Abaya, with her head covered by a hijab, so that the only part of her body you see is that by which she is looking back at you . . . her eyes.
It is against the law for her to drive. She cannot travel by herself with the consent of a male relative. Almost every public place of entrance is segregated with one door for women/families and one for men. Marriages are often arranged on her behalf.
What she knows of sport comes from the television or the internet. There are no opportunities for her to partake as a spectator, let alone as a competitor. This image is representative of what we know of Saudi Arabian Women.
But a representation is just that, a representation.
I recently had the opportunity to travel throughout “The Kingdom” with the Sports and Women’s Empowerment Envoy (a U.S. Department of State Initiative) and the NBA/WBNA . We went from the conservative capital of Riyadh to Dammam and then finished our trip in the more liberal city of Jeddah, conducting clinics and meeting some amazing groups of women along the way.
The week before we left Saudi Arabia, we learned that the King passed a law mandating that physical education now be included in the curriculum in the public schools for girls, an exciting moment of progress.
Title IX changed the entire trajectory of my life as a female athlete. But I do wonder how long it will take to turn this new Saudi decree into reality. While this is theoretically a giant step forward, it is still an unrealizable gain because the obstacles are far greater than what we face in the U.S. They are not only challenged by the conservative cooperation within their culture, but they do not have the facilities, female P.E. teachers, or an enforcement infrastructure to ensure that it is carried out well or even carried out at all.
Only within the last year has the government decided to legally recognize gyms for women. Prior to that, they were denied a license to operate and had to be call “spas” or “health centers.” Even so, only the elite can afford membership to these facilities. In a country with the second highest obesity rate in the world for women and extremely high percentage of the population with diabetes, one could argue that not providing a culture that promotes women’s fitness starts as a fundamental global health issue before it reaches a gender equality issue.
Women cannot swim and if they want to ride a bike or go for a jog they must brave the desert heat and do so fully clothed in an Abaya. Gyms are costly, if available at all. Beyond implementing the new legislation in schools, public facilities also need to be created to provide women a culturally acceptable environment to physically take care of their bodies. This is the foundational framework that must be established first, and then sports can be built upon that.
Besides the incredible hospitality that was shown to us everywhere we went, there was another common theme at all of our clinics. Regardless of age, we found all the players were extremely excited to absorb anything we could teach them. It would be unrealistic for us to have an expectation of a high talent level in a society that does not openly accept, let alone promote, female sports. Our objective was to grow the game on a grassroots level, and to inspire and encourage as many girls and women as possible to play. It was incredibly rewarding to not only see their enthusiasm to learn, but also see how quickly they grasped what we showed them.
Just like a hologram photo that changes ever so slightly as one turns the angle by which they are looking, I saw a different side of these Saudi Arabian women than the oppressed females that are constantly being portrayed in the media. These women are incredibly intelligent. While their education might be segregated after a certain age, most of the girls will not only complete high school, but many will go on to partake in the largest scholarship program in the world and study abroad at various universities. One of the most fascinating lunches we had was with a round table of women, with everyone from the first female lawyer to entrepreneurs to filmmakers to coaches. The ladies we met were incredibly inspiring not only because of their intelligence, but also their determination, resourcefulness, and resolve. They recognize that the road to progress is paved with passion and patience and they are relentless in their pursuit to push forward.
Change takes a consistent, collective effort. The international community must continue to pressure for women's rights and equality; charismatic leaders within the country must continue to courageously pursue progress; and endless work on the grassroots level must be done to capitalize on the fundamental opportunities as they are awarded.
When I picture a women head-to-toe in a loose-fitting Abaya, I see a symbol for intellect and resiliency. And athleticism.