Reema Abdullah is a role model for Saudi women athletes
The first school I went to in Riyadh was, of course, an all-girls school. I was very happy to see it had a swimming pool. It was drained and fenced up and, because it was autumn, I thought nothing more of it. But as the weather got warmer, it became obvious that the pool would not be used that year.
When I asked why, teachers told me it was against the ministry's policies to allow female students to have swimming classes. Indeed, the education ministry does not allow physical education in girls' public schools and discourages it in private schools – especially organised competitive sports – despite many calls for the inclusion of PE from parents, doctors, specialists and , the king's daughter, who is married to the minister of education.
It is not only policies that are standing between girls and physical education. There's a whole culture behind this thinking that's very difficult to shake, and many in frown upon physical activity for girls. Their reasoning is that it's masculine, that exercise would somehow result in girls losing their virginity and that it's against the physiological nature of being a woman.
In eighth grade, a friend and I were called into the principal's office to sign pledges to never do "acrobatic movements" during recess. A teacher had seen us do cartwheels in the schoolyard and had taken it upon herself to stop this unfeminine behaviour. In response about private gyms for women, the highest Islamic council replied that it was "nonsense", and that a woman's place and responsibility is her home. Shiekh Abdullah al-Manea, a consultant to the royal court and a member of the highest Islamic council, sports such as soccer and basketball could result in loss of virginity.
The nternational Olympic Committee (IOC) has criticised Saudi Arabia for being one of the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics, and there is no shortage of Saudi Islamic scholars weighing in: Shiekh al-Najimi Saudis stand their ground against the IOC, as we did with the World Trade Organisation. He says that we refused the conditions that do not fit with Saudi culture and in the end, after 15 years of back and forth, we were on our own terms. He called the whole issue an issue of western dictatorship. Sheikh al-Tirifi sees it as a matter of honour, and that those who die defending their honour die martyrs. Currently, the most popular view of Saudi women in the Olympics is held by Sheikh al-Munijid, who there is no possible way for a Muslim woman to take part in the Olympics without showing her body.
With all this resistance coming from the religious establishment, it's no wonder Prince Nawaf bin Faisal Al Saud, the youth and sports minister, Saudi Arabia would only send a men's team to the London Olympics. "If there is to be women's participation," he added, "it would be by invitation" from international sporting bodies. Meanwhile, Saudi officials are said to have to the IOC.
It's a confusing picture, but in Reema Abdullah we already have a Saudi woman who is unhesitating and proud to be an athletic role model for Saudi women. Abdullah, unlike the ministry, is very open about her participation in the London Olympics. It's no surprise she's taking the lead in her capacity as Saudi Arabia's first female sports radio host, and as captain and one of the founding members of Jeddah United, the first public Saudi women's football team. She is also one of the lucky few who will get to carry the Olympic torch on the 8,000-mile route to London. Instead of avoiding interviews and dialogue, she has bravely chosen to be open to everyone. She's available and even about her aspiration to be included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first Saudi woman to carry the Olympic torch.
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