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Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its longstanding ban on sports for women and girls in public schools is a vital step forward, Human Rights Watch said recently. But serious hurdles, including the country’s male guardianship system, remain in place, preventing women from fully accessing the education and health benefits of sports exercise. The announcement, published on the Education Ministry’s website on July 11, 2017, states that Saudi girls’ schools will offer a physical education programme beginning in the fall 2017 school term “in accordance with Islamic law standards” and would scale up “according to the possibilities available in each school” including sports halls and competent women instructors. The statement said that the ministry made the decision to fulfill the goals of Vision 2030, an ambitious government roadmap for economic and developmental growth.

Saudi Arabia lacks government sports infrastructure for women, with all stadiums, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men. Official sporting bodies hold no sports competitions for Saudi women athletes in the country, and do not provide support and training to Saudi sportswomen hoping to compete in regional and international competitions. Saudi Arabia should build upon this recent reform and open sections in the more than 150 Saudi Sports Federations to women, and remove the ban on women spectators in stadiums.

According to the system every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf, including whether she can apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship or get married. Women were increasingly claiming their right to play sports, but that the country’s national policies and male guardianship system created sometimes insurmountable hurdles to meaningful participation in exercise.

Human Rights Watch