JEDDAH, May 17 – In red-and-white uniforms which cover all but their hands and face, Saudi women pioneers with their basketballs and footballs are puncturing strict religious taboos.Jeddah United train four times a week away from the prying eyes of men.
Yet just playing basketball is revolutionary in Saudi Arabia, where an ultra-conservative version of Islam means women can’t go out in public without guardians, can not drive, and can’t even attend men’s sports events.
Formed last year in the port city of Jeddah, the team is made up of mostly women from well-off families, some like the founder and team captain Lina al-Maina graduates of US schools, where they picked up a liking for the game.
"The image of a Saudi woman covered from her head to toe is false," she told AFP.
"She has another side, more dynamic … , one of women who are beating challenges one after another without overstepping the rules and laws of the country."
The daughter of the chief editor at the Jeddah-based English-language newspaper Arab News, Maina began playing basketball with her husband while they were studying in the United States.
But there was no outlet for her new passion when she returned to Saudi Arabia. Women in schools aren’t allowed to take part in competitive sports, and there are no formal venues for them outside of schools.
Even going to a gym is tough.
Arab News reports that private gyms catering specifically to women, despite their growing popularity, are under threat of closure because the government has only authorised such institutions for men.
But Maina and her team-mates have found a way in Jeddah, more permissive than the strict capital Riyadh.
They practice together in uniforms that include white scarves covering their hair, long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants.
For competitive games, they have had to travel far — twice to Jordan and once to the United Arab Emirates.
"It’s difficult, but we are pioneers," Maina said. "Our message is that Saudi women should be able to take part in sports, like everywhere around the world."
Even so, news of the club has drawn the hostility of conservative Muslim clerics, three of whom charged in a statement that women’s clubs are "one of the principal sources of vice and debauchery."
"My husband feels that we have not done anything wrong, and that our religion encourages believers to be in good physical condition," Maina counters.
Rima Abdallah, another Jeddah sports fan, has also taken up the challenge, pulling together two dozen friends to form a football team, King’s United, sporting orange and black colours.
The team rents a grassy field just north of the city where men can not see them in training, and plays matches against teams from local private and foreign schools.
Only women and children can attend the matches.
The two women see their passions as breaking through the country’s strict taboo on women’s sports.
Abdallah hopes King’s United will "serve as the seeds for a national team."
"Sooner or later, there will be places and authorisation for women to play sports. We are going to allow it in the schools," Maina says. "The skills will blossom, and maybe we will one day have a women’s Olympics team."