Women athletes in Saudi Arabia say sports are helping to break down traditions that crush the voices of many women.
In the city of Jeddah, a group of basketball players is urging women and girls to get out of their homes and become active in public life. The group’s members say they can do this by connecting sports to health issues.
All of the players are women.
Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the Middle East. In many ways, Saudi Arabia is as modern as any place on earth in terms of public health services, transportation and other infrastructure.
But activists say the country has a long way to go in terms of women's rights. They say by persuading women and girls to play sports, they are working in support of good health. The activists say they also are breaking down the image of Saudi women as being silent members of their society.
The Jeddah United women’s team was in Malaysia recently for a game. Officials say that by playing internationally, the Saudi women improve their understanding of the world and the nations they visit.
Lina Almaeena heads the Jeddah United Sports Company.
"We played in the United States, Malaysia, in Jordan and the U.A.E. as well as Riyadh and other cities in Saudi Arabia. So, we do that to promote sports locally and internationally to try to change stereotypes and show a different segment in Saudi Arabia."
At an event in Jeddeh for disabled boys and girls, female basketball players say women’s sports are increasingly popular at home. Men do not attend games. The players wear head coverings and white uniforms that extend over their arms and legs.
Player Nour Gary says resisting commonly accepted ideas in Saudi Arabia requires pushing against limits, without breaking them.
"It is not even against the law or against the religion. It is just people having their own beliefs and trying to close it on other people. So, yes, being open towards sports, they have more flexibility towards other things."
Players say women's rights in Saudi Arabia have come a long way in recent years, but many freedoms, like the right to drive a car, still seem far away.
Last year, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time. Twenty women were elected into local office. Like politicians, female athletes say they believe women's' sports will eventually be accepted more publicly.
Deborah Parkwood is the head of the Jeddah United basketball team.
"We have great athletes here in Saudi Arabia, some of them. The girls, they want to play harder, they want to train harder and they would love to compete for their country internationally."
For now, players say campaigning for women's sports locally is having an immediate result on society. They say it shows mothers the good effects of physical exercise for themselves, and for their children.
I’m Marsha James.
Words in This Story
athlete – n. someone who competes in a sport
stereotypes – n. a commonly accepted, but sometimes unfair idea that many people have about all members of a group