Saudi Arabia loosens leash on women with WFL launch


Saudia Arabia Womens Football League Image:

In a bid to shed off its ultra-conservative tag, the Saudi sports authorities have launched a Women’s Football League (WFL). This decision comes two years after women were first allowed into stadia in the Gulf kingdom.

The first season of the 500,000 riyals ($133,000) league for women over 17 will be staged in the cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. This was revealed by the Government-run Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA). SFA said there is “potential for more depending on registrations”.

It will involve preliminary rounds, leading to regional winners competing for a WFL Champions Cup.

“The launch of the (league) bolsters women’s participation in sports at the community level and will generate increased recognition for women’s sports achievements,” the federation said in a statement.

The aforementioned development will work as a springboard for Saudi women to dive into the world of sports. They were allowed to enter a football stadium to watch a match in January 2018.

The ultra-conservative kingdom, which has long kept women on a tight leash, had earlier barred women from entering sports arenas. Saudi Arabia has long been seen as one of the world’s strictest societies and has been flirting with women’s equality issue.

But the country is now bending the rules to boost women’s participation in sports as it also eases strict decades-old rules separating the sexes.

De facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced a series of reforms including allowing women to attend concerts, reopening cinemas for them, and lifting a prohibition on women driving as part of a modernization drive.

Various sports governing organizations have put the heat on the country to allow women to take part in international events.

When Saudi Arabia agreed to send its first female athletes to the Olympics in 2012, it was the last country to yield to the pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for more gender equality.

The new soccer league could be another step in that direction.

“The commencement of the Saudi Women’s Football League is one more major leap forward for the future of our country, our health, our youth, and our ambitions to see every athlete be recognized and nurtured to their fullest capability,” Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, the President of the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) said in a statement.

The new league is not part of Saudi Arabia’s national football federation, which includes many leagues and youth programs for men and boys. According to the SFA statement, the women’s league will comprise preliminary rounds that will determine regional champions, who will then proceed to a knockout stage and compete for the WFL Champions Cup.


Though Saudi Arabia is slowly allowing women more elbow room, nevertheless, campaigners say everything related to women’s rights still leave much to be desired. Several prominent women’s rights advocates have been sent behind bars despite Government reforms.

Campaigners have taken the women’s football league development with a pinch of salt since female activists continue to remain in prison. They have termed is as “sportswashing”.

The Amnesty International has come down heavily on formation of the WFL terming it as a distraction from an “abysmal human rights situation” but cautiously welcomed by experts, who view it as an achievement for Saudi women.

“The country was trying to use the glamour of sport as a public relations tool to improve its international image. The drive to improve the overall situation of women in Saudi Arabia can only be welcomed when it goes hand-in-hand with the inclusion of the brave individuals who fought for decades for this change,” fumed Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf.

Charlotte Lysa, who recently completed a PhD thesis on women’s football in Saudi and Qatar at the University of Oslo in Norway, observed, “While it’s very important to keep attention on those who are in jail and who have been working for women’s rights for years, this is not the only way of promoting women’s rights. While public relations may be a component of Saudi authorities’ efforts, it’s not the whole story either.”

However, there are people who are positive about the entire development –Mahfoud Amara, a Sports Policy Professor at Qatar University, said the WFL may be about “testing the waters”.

“This is sending a strong signal internally — particularly to the conservative wing in Saudi Arabia — that now the authorities are serious about moving forward with regards to their reforms. Maybe they are just trying to start with this as a first step and see how this is going to be received and then move to another level,” Mahfoud commented.

“As Saudi Arabia recognizes the economic and soft power aspects of sports, it wants to be seen as meeting international standards for equal representation in sports, including by having women in decision-making in sports organizations,” Mahfoud further observed.

However, Amnesty International’s Lynn begs to differ – “It is precisely that soft power aspect that is used to obscure the abysmal situation for the very women and men who fought for such change.”

Severe harsh restrictions still remain in place for women, and the kingdom has also escalated a drive to wipe out dissent in recent years. The United Nations has warned that much more needs to be done to grant women full autonomy – “Women continue to face numerous restrictions under the guardianship system, which gives men arbitrary authority over their female relatives and is based on, and results in, discrimination against women,” a panel of UN experts said in a statement after the reforms were announced last year.

Women also have little say over their own life – a Saudi woman’s legal position is equal to that of a minor, and their testimony in court are given less weight than those of men.

The UN experts said that despite the relaxation of some of the rules, the system in place still “negates [women’s] fundamental human rights and their dignity as autonomous human beings, and severely impairs women’s equal participation and decision-making in political, economic and social affairs.”

Cooling heels

A number of prominent women’s rights activists are still languishing in prison even after some of the changes they fought for have got translated into reality. Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 for campaigning against the guardianship system and for the right to drive. She has said she was tortured while in detention and is currently facing trial. An Amnesty International report says that Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef are all awaiting trial.

Grassroots angle

Lysa says the move to increase the inclusion of many other Saudi women in sports would have a big impact on the ground – “In Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, you have people who are working within the system, against the system and with the system in different ways. So, being against or for the Government is not necessarily the only way to try and change one situation or the situation for their country.”

Lysa explained, “To what degree they will find support from all of society is difficult to say, but legitimizing the idea of women’s sports from above makes it easier for them to try and change [conservative] attitudes at a grassroots level.”

Last year, a royal decree allowed Saudi women to travel abroad without a male consort’s nod and restaurant segregation was scrapped.

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