By: TARYN ASHDOWN
I owe a lot of my success and personal growth to sports. Throughout the years I have been given so much satisfaction every time I’ve had opportunity to lace up my hockey skates. Although I am no longer a hockey player, I’m so grateful that I have the chance to play if I wish. Not playing was my choice. But so many women around the world are not given this choice to engage in athletics. The benefits of sport stretch so far beyond health, and it is a topic I believe is absolutely worthy of being addressed.
One country that currently has many restrictions against women in sports is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is known for having laws that prevent women from being treated equally to men. According to Human Rights Watch, in Saudi Arabia, “a husband’s “right” to control his wife trumps her right to obtain protection from abuse.” It is also illegal for women to drive. Although having the opportunity to play sports might seem like a small segment of women’s rights, I believe it is significant. Creating equality on the field or the court could transform to equality in the workforce, on the streets, and in the home. With time, this is possible. Step by step, women’s rights will be known.
Last summer, at the 2012 Olympics in London, Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar were the first two women to ever compete for Saudi Arabia. This was a huge step in gender equality that should not be overlooked. I’m so glad to see initiatives by several international organizations addressing this controversial issue of women in sports in Saudi Arabia.
The country is also in the process of beginning to license women’s sports clubs, according to al-Watan Daily. It is reassuring to know that this idea is being implemented and that the first center dedicated to sports for girls officially opened in June. Although, according to Middle East Voices, this sports center currently takes place in the private school system, there seems to be talk about implementing this program in public schools as well.
Saudi women’s rights still have so far to go. It may be hard to envision any sort of substantial change in a society that is so deeply rooted in traditions of inequality. It is however a good start. Sports generate confidence, leadership abilities, coping with stress, life satisfaction, and an outlet for social interaction, things which I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Undoubtedly, social change is on the rise with Saudi King Adullah appointing 30 women to the government’s advisory body, the Shura Council. Times are changing; women should be given the choice to engage in athletics. If they decide that’s not for them, that’s their choice too. The rights of both access and participation in sport have been acknowledged in several international mechanisms, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We cannot underestimate the power of sport. The UN states that “In addition to generating physical and mental health benefits, sport can be an effective platform to provide women and girls with leadership skills they can transfer to other domains, such as civic engagement or professional life. Strength, perseverance, commitment, team spirit, solidarity, negotiation, and respect for others are values that are central to sport but also to the pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
By being a teammate and participating in sports, I developed life-long skills. There were times where I was the only girl on a sports team. But playing hockey from a young age, I have always felt equivalent to any males on the ice. It upsets me to know that so many women in our world cannot even fathom that they can be seen as an equal. I will look forward to seeing more Saudi Arabian women participating in sports recreationally and competitively at levels such as the Olympics. I certainly hope that this small step for women’s sports can be the beginning of a movement towards greater equality in Saudi Arabia.