Why you should care
Because there can’t be a level playing field if girls aren’t even allowed onto the field.
It was a good week. On July 11 — a decade and a half into Lina Al Maeena’s fight for women’s sports in Saudi Arabia — the Education Ministry announced that physical education classes in public schools will begin this fall. “It’s a big, big deal,” Al Maeena tells OZY. “It’s like your Title IX,” she adds, referring to the 1972 federal law prohibiting U.S. high schools and colleges from discriminating on the basis of gender in any activity, including sports.
When Al Maeena founded Jeddah United (JU), Saudi Arabia’s first private female basketball club, in 2003, the government did not license female gyms or clubs, and only a few elite private schools offered sports for girls. The team’s players faced backlash from disapproving family members to texted threats and harassment by the religious police, Saudi Arabia’s official enforcers of strict social mores. But today, after a long campaign to change attitudes toward women’s athletics, the Saudi government has written them into Vision 2030, its new economic development plan to improve infrastructure, encourage community sports and support elite competitors.
At the center of that shift is Al Maeena, whose strategy has been to rally the community before pushing for tectonic change. Armed with data supporting the link between sports and physical health, public piety and social values such as hard work and commitment, she looks at critics and sees potential allies. It’s a blueprint for progress — gradual, grassroots and doggedly persistent — that has inspired would-be activists for a range of women’s rights causes such as lifting prohibitions on driving and gender mixing.
“She has pushed the envelope for girls and women in sports, health and exercise, while simultaneously staying within the parameters of Saudi society,” says Deborah Packwood, an international sports consultant who has worked with JU.
When her quest began, Al Maeena was among very few Saudi women to grow up exercising. She played basketball at family gatherings and took PE classes at her private school. Her interest in sports continued at the University of New Mexico and George Mason University, where she played pickup games while studying communications and psychology.
Her experience was in large part the result of having parents, both well-known Saudi journalists, who believed their daughter should enjoy the same opportunities as their sons. In Saudi Arabia, a kingdom founded by the Al Saud family, who forged an alliance with the conservative religious establishment, women are still legal minors, requiring the consent of a male relative to travel, work and study. They cannot drive, and schools are gender segregated.
Conservative clerics urged followers to “protect” their daughters, wives and sisters from athletics.
The country has modernized since its founding in 1932, but sports remain a source of conflict. Religious scholars have long argued that sports threaten a woman’s true nature, and if she competes against other women, she may someday compete against men — risking the cardinal sin of gender mixing.
When Al Maeena returned home after college in 2000, female sports were essentially prohibited. She married and welcomed her first child, triggering an episode of postpartum depression. “Why don’t you play basketball?” she recalls her husband suggesting. So she called her former school teammates and set up a game. “I felt better after an hour and a half. It’s a magical effect,” she says. She then determined to make it her mission to provide a similar outlet for other women.
Al Maeena launched Jeddah United in 2003 and recruited friends to join the team. Some families were incredulous, asking how they’d find a safe practice space — away from men and the religious police. They played in private facilities and only with other women.
When she decided to expand from a single team to a training academy in 2006, Saudi’s General Authority for Sport didn’t license women’s clubs. So Al Maeena registered as a business with the Ministry of Commerce — just one example of how Saudi women have poked holes in a system seeking to circumscribe their lives.
JU grew quietly until 2009, when the team traveled to Jordan for a game broadcast on Saudi cable station Al Arabiya. After the match, newspapers published cover stories filled with outrage and decrying moral decline. Conservative clerics urged followers to “protect” their daughters, wives and sisters from athletics. “Do not distort the honor and reputation of Saudi women,” exhorted one of many online commentators.
The experience told Al Maeena she needed to focus her energy on the community as much as the team. So JU took to social media and gave interviews to communicate a simple message: Sport builds character and improves wellbeing, in line with Islamic values. Over time, and by going to great lengths to allay community concerns, JU found itself embraced. Bandar Ashrour, whose twin sisters were among the first to join the team, says the club’s sensitive approach “was comforting for us, to know that they were going to play in a contained environment.”
In 2012, Saudi Arabia sent its first-ever female athletes to the Summer Olympics. A year later, then–King Abdullah appointed the first women to the country’s advisory parliament. And for the first time, JU’s challenges were more logistical — finding enough female referees and coaches — than cultural.
At an outdoor practice in Jeddah, parents of young players gather along the sidelines. “I am thinking about joining myself,” one mother tells OZY as she watches her 8- and 10-year-old play. “I’ve noticed my daughter is trying more at school.”
With Vision 2030, the Saudi government has committed to elevating the status of sports in the kingdom — and boosting physical activity among men and women alike. “It feels very validating,” Al Maeena says. Last December, King Salman appointed Al Maeena to the Shura Council, charged with advising the cabinet on legislation, where she continues to trumpet the importance of playing sports. Looking ahead, she says implementation will be the primary challenge: training enough female coaches, sports managers and athletes to raise generations of active girls.
But when it comes to meeting that challenge, Al Maeena will be ready. She has, after all, spent her life making the case.