From USA Today:
"Saudi Arabia will finally allow girls to take PE — that's a big deal"
Saudi Arabia will allow girls to participate in physical education classes for the first time ever, a change experts say illustrates how the government is moving to modernize and loosen rules in the ultra-conservative kingdom where women are not allowed to drive or travel without a male chaperone. The Ministry of Education issued the decree for this coming academic year, the Associated Press reported. The announcement did not specify what kinds of activities would be included in the classes but stated the lessons would comply with Islamic law and the process would be gradual. Activists are celebrating the news as a major development in a country where women face extreme social and personal restrictions as a result of the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam. Women are not allowed to drive or even travel without the permission of a male guardian. They also must cover their hair and bodies in public under the law. Such constraints largely bar women from participating in sports, unless families permit working out in private. Four years ago, the government allowed girls to play sports in private schools for the first time. The move to allow physical education for all students is “a historic decree for all schools, public and private,” said Lina Almaeena, a member of the Saudi Consultative Assembly Shura Council. Lina, who has been pushing for women sports for over a decade, founded the kingdom's first female sports club, basketball team Jeddah United. Fatimah Baeshen, a Saudi socioeconomic strategist and director of D.C.-based Arabia Foundation said the move is “a turning point in education reform, the curriculum development and the beginnings of gender balance at the child development stage." The change is being welcomed by students and parents alike in the country. “I hope my school opens a tennis class since the game is not only very active, it’s extremely fun to throw a ball around and test your strength," Maymoona Sultan, a ninth-grade student in Riyadh, told the Saudi newspaper Arab News. "I’m happy that more girls will get to understand about sports and health like me." Sultan A.J., a banker and father of two, told Arab News he is excited his daughter will now have the same opportunities as his son to participate in sports in schools. "My daughter will finally enjoy her time in school along with her school friends and build a good understanding as to what being healthy is all about,” he said. Allowing girls to partake in physical education is part of a far larger government undertaking called Vision 2030 that aims to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversify its economy and make life in the kingdom more enjoyable for citizens. As part of the program, the kingdom aims to get 40% of Saudis to exercise at least once per week and will relax some of its rigid rules for women. Last week, the government announced approval for female gym licenses, which were once relegated to operating under salon licenses. "The introduction of physical education and female gym licenses are institutional recognition that women have the right to also participate in sports and fitness activities,” Baeshen said. "All of this indicates progress for women." The developments follow a decade of incremental change in Saudi Arabia with more women working in retail and being appointed top executive roles at the Saudi stock exchange and Dammam Airport. Women can now also be appointed to the Shoura Council and run in municipal elections. But hurdles remain. Earlier this month, a Saudi woman was arrested after she was videotaped walking around in a miniskirt. The incident sparked international social media outrage, and she was later released without charges. Massoud Maalouf, former Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. and a D.C.-based advocate of women rights in Middle East and North Africa region said while allowing physical education for girls is a step in the right direction, the kingdom still has a long way to go. “When women cannot walk in the street without a male chaperon, when they cannot drive a car and when they have to cover their face and their body, by law and not by choice, it is difficult to say that their rights are fully respected,” Maalouf says.
^ As someone who spent nearly every other day trying to get out of taking Gym class (more because of not being allowed to take a shower and be clean afterwards and smelling bad the rest of the day than the actual sports itself) I'm not as excited over this, but do realize it is a huge victory for equity in a country that doesn't even let women drive. ^