By Fatimah S. Baeshen
Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar runs in her women's 800m round 1 heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. By Phil Noble / REUTERS. @Adobe Stock Images.

In an interview with CNBC, Lina Al Maeena, the founder of Jeddah United Sports Club (JU), inferred that through sports Saudi women could break a lot of stereotypes.

Sports are also a mechanism for Saudi women to change policy and advance our rights. This week, we, slowly but surely, gained more ground. Just a few days ago, the Kingdom finally implemented a 2014 Royal Decree mandating physical education for girls in public schools beginning in the 2017-18 academic year. At the same time, the government has now made it legal for women’s gyms to secure operations’ licenses from the state.

While the introduction of physical education for girls in public school and the issuance of female gym licenses are victories in their own right, they are also a lens for observing larger social and cultural shifts that are expanding the role of women in the public sphere.

Saudi Arabia is known for its conservative traditions. And, historically, conservatives, led by the clerical establishment, have viewed women’s participation in sports as a mechanism for undermining traditional gender roles and attacking the integrity of the family unit. With respect to the former, conservative critiques focused on the masculinization of women; participation in athletics intruded into the public space, a male-dominated area, and required women to adopt male patterns of dress, such as pants. With regard to the latter, conservatives argued that participation in athletics would encourage a woman to willfully neglect her domestic responsibilities or cause physical injury that would “compromise her purity” (i.e., tear her hymen) making her “unsuitable” for marriage. For these and other reasons, women were officially barred from participating in sports, exercise, and physical education.

Unofficially, Saudi women have participated in athletic activities for decades. At school, young girls play tag at recess while adults frequent walking tracks (such as the one located behind Tahlia Street in Jeddah or the tree-lined paths criss-crossing Prince Sultan University in Riyadh). Women play basketball for private clubs (such as Jeddah United). Saudis also set up women’s gyms, which circumnavigated legal restrictions by registering as hair salons—yes, hair salons. Health and fitness advocates also created platforms, like the Empowerment Hub, to inject a more holistic approach to female well-being.

While the government may have turned a blind eye to these activities conservatives did not.

In the 1990s, for example, the clerical establishment pushed back hard against hair salon gyms sparking a conservative grassroots public awareness campaign called “Let Her Get Fat,” an ironic title given the Kingdom’s obesity pandemic. Absent a government crackdown, most of these institutions and activities persisted despite attempts to sabotage them.

Fast forward to the 2010s and, I would argue, persistence created enough critical mass to create lasting change. During the first half of this decade, Saudi women achieved several milestones: sending two representatives to the London Olympics (2012), a dedicated sports arena in Khobar offering instruction in fitness, yoga, and martial arts for women and girls (2013), and legislation sanctioning sports for girls in private schools (2013) and physical education for girls in public schools (2014). Significantly, Princess Reema bint Bander Al Saud was appointed as Vice President of Women’s Affairs for the General Sports Authority (2016).

As women made incremental strides in athletics, they also made incremental strides elsewhere in the public sphere: working in the retail sector (2012), serving in the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s top advisory body (2013), running and voting in municipal elections (2015), leading the Saudi stock exchange (2016) and Dammam’s King Fahd International Airport (2016). All of these advancements, in athletics and in society at large, indicate a nod from the government to not only facilitate the growth of women’s public roles at scale, but to institutionalize the effort.

Experts debate whether Saudi Arabia’s current transformation is genuine and sustainable. In my opinion, the strongest indicator that they are is that government policies are evolving to reflect, facilitate, and institutionalize grassroots activity, rather than the other way around.

Inside the Kingdom, this transformation is occurring via the percolation of ad hoc, grassroots activities into government, which has responded by adopting and then implementing supportive policies. Although incremental, this process creates a feedback loop between government policies and grassroots initiatives that is strong enough to withstand conservative pressure—once implemented. This is what happened when Saudi Arabia moved from a Thursday-Friday to a Friday-Saturday weekend; private businesses, particularly banks, began staying open on Thursdays in order to align the Kingdom’s workweek with international norms. This change gave way to a grassroots movement to change the weekend. The government responded by floating a trial balloon, announcing the possibility of change well before implementing it, to allow for further public debate so that, when the shift was finally made, it was anticipated and largely accepted by competing interest groups that may have opposed it, such as the religious establishment.

Policies normalizing a role for women in the public sphere are especially important for meeting the Kingdom’s economic goals under Vision 2030. This will not only require more robust female participation in the workforce, but a a drastic reduction in government expenditures. In this regard, women’s athletics is more than just optics; it will reduce the Kingdom’s ballooning healthcare budget by lowering incidents of lifestyle diseases stemming from physical inactivity, such as diabetes and obesity, that are among the Kingdom’s greatest public health crises. At the same time, the government also recognizes that women’s progress has become the metric by which the rest of the world measures Saudi Arabia’s advancement as a nation.

For these reasons, I see the passage of this new legislation, along with its implementation, as a sign that more change, slow but seemingly steady, is coming; perhaps the recent Royal decree to review the guardianship system (which came about as a result of grassroots pressure and Saudi’s election to the UN women’s commission), will result in a similar outcome?