SAUDI Arabia is to license women’s sports clubs for the first time.
The move is a major step for an ultra-religious country where Muslim clerics have warned against female exercise and women are still denied many basic human rights.
Last year, the conservative Islamic kingdom, where women must have permission from a male relative to take many big decisions, sent women athletes to the Olympics for the first time after pressure from international rights groups.
Until now, women’s exercise facilities, including gyms, have had to be licensed by the health ministry and designated as “health centres”.
Last April, al-Watan, a daily newspaper in the country owned by a Saudi prince, reported the government had set up a ministerial committee to allow women’s sports clubs. The general presidency of youth welfare, which functions like a sports ministry, only regulates men’s clubs.
In 2009, a member of the country’s highest council of clerics said girls should not play sports lest they “lose their virginity” by tearing their hymens. State-run girls’ schools do not have exercise classes.
Watan said in a report yesterday that the interior ministry had decided to allow women’s sports clubs after reviewing a study that showed flaws in the system.
Last August, two Saudi women – a judoka and a sprinter – became the first to compete for their country in the Olympics. At least one had trained abroad.
Saudi women are barred from driving and must seek the permission of a male “guardian”, usually a father, husband or brother, to marry, travel abroad, open a bank account, work or have some forms of elective surgery.
In January, King Abdullah named 30 women to the Shura Council, an appointed body that debates future legislation and then gives non-binding advice to the government.
The king, thought to have been born in 1923, is viewed as having pushed for greater women’s education and opportunities to work, sometimes in the face of opposition from powerful conservative clerics.
The move comes at the same time as it was announced that the country may try to end anonymity for Twitter users in Saudi Arabia by limiting access to the site to people who register their identification documents.
Last week, local media reported the government had asked telecoms companies to look at ways they could monitor, or block, free internet phone services such as Skype.
Twitter is highly popular with Saudis and has stirred broad debate on subjects ranging from religion to politics in a country where such public discussion had been considered at best unseemly and sometimes illegal.
Early this month, the security spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry described social networking, particularly Twitter, as a tool used by militants to stir social unrest.
The country’s Grand Mufti, Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, last week described users of the microblogging site as “clowns” wasting time with frivolous and even harmful discussions.