Geneva: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) urged the Saudi government to push forward with moves to lift a ban on sports in girls´ state schools.
The conservative Muslim kingdom´s consultative Shura Council last week recommended an end to the ban, which was relaxed in private schools last year, state media reported. “We welcome this development and look forward to approval by the Education Ministry,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in a statement.
The ministry must officially lift the ban as the council is influential, but only advisory. Adams noted that IOC president Thomas Bach had raised women´s involvement in sport when he visited Saudi Arabia. “On the IOC President´s visit to Saudi Arabia last week the National Olympic Committee outlined plans to increase women´s participation in sport in the kingdom at university level, which we fully support,” Adams said. “And following participation by female athletes from Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games in London and the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this would be a further step towards full participation by girls and women at all levels of sport in the country,” he added.
All education in Saudi Arabia is single-sex, but sports in girls schools remains a sensitive issue in a country where women have to cover from head to toe when in public.
The kingdom bowed to international pressure and sent its first ever female participants to an Olympics at the 2012 London Games.
The IOC agreed to allow the two Saudi women — a judo player and a middle-distance runner — to compete with their heads and bodies covered in deference to the Islamic dress code enforced at home.
Human rights campaigners say that millions of Saudi women remain effectively barred from sports. Saudi authorities shut down private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010, and women are effectively barred from sports arenas by strict rules banning men and women mixing in public.
The kingdom follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law, forbidding women to work or travel without the authorisation of their male guardians. It is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. “Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to end discriminatory practices against women, but allowing girls to play sports in government schools would move the ball down the field in ways that could have major long-term impact,” said Human Rights Watch.