Published: Mon, January 15, 2018
Global News | By Stacy Ballard

Saudi social reforms: Women attend soccer match for the first time

Saudi social reforms: Women attend soccer match for the first time

Women in black abayas and fluorescent orange vests stood at the gates of King Abdullah Stadium, welcoming people into the family section that, for the first time in Saudi Arabia, was seeing women attend a men's football match.

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Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, has long barred them from sports arenas through strict rules that keep the sexes apart in public. Any woman caught doing anything "inappropriate" with their phone faces punishment.

"This event proves that we are heading for a prosperous future", football fan Lamya Khaled Nasser told AFP.

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Ruwayda Ali Qassem, another Jeddah resident, said Friday was a "historic day in the kingdom which culminates [in] ongoing fundamental changes".

The government's General Sports Authority said this week that three stadiums had so far been modified to accommodate women through the addition of private sections for women and their male relatives, female bathrooms, and even prayer areas.

"I came with my father and my brother - we're fans of Al-Ahli", said university student Areej al-Ghamdi, adding that she had always cheered the club from home."This is the first time we'll be cheering for real, not just in front of the television", she told the Agence France-Presse.

Many female fans could hardly hold back their excitement after watching the football game. Although the authorities made rare exceptions to let foreign women watch football games, no such exceptions had been made for Saudi citizens.

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"Today, things have changed".

Fatimah Baeshen, spokeswoman at the Saudi embassy in Washington "rooted for the ladies" in a message on Twitter.

Friday's match was the first in a series that will be open to women: a second is due to take place on Saturday and a third on January 18. Many women excited about the new ability to watch live games - as well as men opposed to this - took to social media on Friday, writing under the Arabic hashtags #FamiliesEnteringStadiums and #ThePeopleWelcomeWomenEnteringStadiums.

The momentous occasion is part of the reforms being brought in by crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pledged to "return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam".

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Saudi Arabia still has a long ways to go in terms of boosting women's empowerment, but progress, no matter how slow it comes, is progress.

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