After Saudi Arabian authorities announced a new female football league, one of a slew of recent concessions to women’s rights in the conservative kingdom, Saudi women footballers have called for full equality on the pitch.
Nouf Yamani, who plays for a team in the commercial city of Jeddah, said she and her teammates were excited to play in the new league, but they still faced major disadvantages compared to male players in Saudi Arabia.
“We face so many challenges, from a lack of closed, fully-equipped football stadiums and sports buildings that preserve the privacy of women to a lack of medical teams and professional coach crews,” said the 26-year-old.
“We want to be included under the umbrella of the Saudi football federation and be treated like other football teams are,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The move comes two years after the lifting of a ban on Saudi women attending fixtures in stadiums and will see women over 17 competing for places in teams in major cities on March 22 ahead of knockout stages later this year to win a Champions Cup.
The country has won praise for such reforms, led by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with the aim of opening up society and attracting foreign investment to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
But it has also faced fierce criticism for detaining women’s rights activists who had called for the changes.
Maysaa al-Amoudi, a Washington-based Saudi women’s rights activist, said the launch of a football league was a bid to address Western criticism rather than a genuine effort to improve women’s lives.
“Do you think that launching a women’s football league would improve women’s conditions in Saudi Arabia?” said al-Amoudi, who was arrested in 2015 when she tried to drive into the kingdom with another activist and has lived in the United States since 2018.
“Women’s conditions in Saudi Arabia are clear to everyone. They only want to make headlines without really changing women’s rights.”
But Wedyan Babteen, 26, who founded the team Yamani plays for in Jeddah, said the decision to set up a dedicated league with a prize of 500,000 riyals (US$133,000) was a “recognition of the importance” of women’s sport.
“Before, we used to practise football and have matches in a random way,” she said.”But now, with a state sponsorship of the league, it is going to be more organized and will give us a chance to get to know the other teams who share our passion for football.”
Yamani, whose football role models are the American players Alex Morgan and Carlie Lloyd, said every Saudi woman with a passion for sport should be able to pursue it.
“You can do it,” she said. “You can overcome the obstacles, as many others have done.”
Yamani was one of the lucky ones. When she started playing at 12, her family was supportive – a rarity in Saudi Arabia, where women’s lives have long been heavily restricted.
Some of those restrictions are now being relaxed, including a ban on women driving cars lifted in 2018. Since last year, women over 21 have been able to get a passport and go abroad without permission and register births, marriages or divorce. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)