Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to attend a professional football match for the first time on Friday it will be a momentous event, especially for one Al-Hilal fan
Forget Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona, the biggest move in the world of football this month will come on Friday as women step inside a Saudi Arabian stadium to watch a professional game from the stands for the first time in the countrys history. Al-Ahli will be trying to close the gap at the top of the Saudi Premier League behind Al-Hilal with a win over Al-Batin but more attention will be paid to the make up of those in the crowd.
Until now, in the country ranked by the World Economic Forum in 2016 as 141th out of 144 on gender parity, women have been forced to watch the beautiful game on television. Those caught inside a stadium, as one woman was in December 2014, were arrested. The Saudi government announced last October that the long-standing ban was coming to an end, in at least in three stadiums to start with. Arenas in Riyadh, Jeddah and the eastern city of Dammam will have special sections for female fans.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was elevated to his current position last July, has been easing restrictions on women. In June the driving ban is set to be lifted. After the 32-year-old allowed women into a Riyadh stadium last September to celebrate the countrys national day in a move that went well, the next step was obvious. It is set to be a significant one not least because there is genuine passion for the sport in all sections of Saudi Arabian society.
Ghadah Grrah could not watch her favourite team Al-Hilal even in the final of the 2014 Asian Champions League though female fans of Western Sydney Wanderers were allowed inside the King Fahd Stadium. Her wait, however, is finally coming to an end. It can be hard to have to watch your team only on television especially when it is a big game or a final but now my wish is coming true, the 22 year-old tells the Guardian.
The fact that it is a huge game against Al-Ittihad of Jeddah, national and continental rivals, just adds to the anticipation. I dont know how to describe my feelings to you, she adds. I have been waiting since I became a fan in 2010 and it is such a pleasure to go to a match for my favourite team in Saudi Arabia. I am very excited.
Saudi Arabia is an Asian powerhouse with numerous continental titles at club and country level. The national team reached the second round in a first World Cup appearance in 1994 and celebrated qualification for their fifth World Cup in September. Their coach, Bert van Marwijk, was quickly released and his successor, Edgardo Bauza from Argentina, was dismissed two months later to be replaced by his compatriot Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Decision making by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation may be erratic but the governments call to allow women into stadiums is anything but, according to the Jeddah-based journalist Aseel Bashraheel. There are many female fans in Saudi Arabia, she says. Many of my female friends and family are huge football enthusiasts. Ive been to my share of cafes in Jeddah on many game nights and Ive witnessed all the ladies around me watching the games animatedly and cheering loudly with their husbands and kids. Ive seen my aunt and uncle cheer for opposing teams and then bicker and tease each other when their teams win or lose.
It is expected there will be an major influx of women for the opening games before a lull, with numbers hopefully gradually increasing over the months and years to come. There will be a lot of women attending games as they have been waiting for this for many years, says Khalin Ghadin of the Saudi Premier League, although the official acknowledges there has been some negative reaction on social media. There was some criticism. Any decision brings criticism but most people support it.
Bashraheel knows it will take time for more conservative elements in the country to be won over. There were those who welcomed the decision and expressed their eagerness to attend a family-oriented football match. And then there were others who believed the decision goes against Saudis culture and tradition. That culture may be not quite as immovable as previously thought. Society is changing in Saudi Arabia but I also believe theres always room for more change.
For Grrah it is a good start and the Al-Hilal fan believes that Saudi soccer was never solely a male preserve anyway. Saudi women have long been involved in the culture of football, this was never applicable to men only. If a woman is at the stadium with her husband, father or brother, the players will be more excited. We have been waiting for a long time and this is a new feeling for everyone. I think it will be a wonderful event.
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