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Saudi women slam dunk sports taboo

By Rima Maktabi, CNN
July 5, 2012 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saudi women are banned from playing sport in public, but attitudes are slowly changing
  • A basketball team in Jeddah has drawn growing numbers of women over the past decade
  • They say growing awareness of the health benefits of sport are helping to change attitudes
  • Saudi Arabia recently said it would allow women athletes to compete at the Olympics

Each month, Inside the Middle East takes you behind the headlines to see a different side of this diverse region

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- A group of women basketball players in Saudi Arabia has been defying stereotypes as one of the few female sports teams in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia practices an austere form of Islam in which women are forbidden from playing sport in public -- as well as driving, or traveling without the permission of a male guardian.

But Jeddah United, which has grown its membership over the past decade from a dozen to 350, mostly children of both genders, works around these restrictions by playing and practicing on a gender-segregated private court.

Conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia have argued there are religious reasons for excluding women from sport. Sheikh Adnan Bahereth, who preaches in the holy city of Mecca, told CNN that form-fitting athletic clothing was immoral, and that women should be veiled and remain at home.

The women of Jeddah United in action.
The women of Jeddah United in action.

But the female athletes of Jeddah United, based in Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, say that, although sport remains a minority pursuit among women in their country, attitudes are slowly changing.

See also: Saudi women: Pampered or oppressed?

"Four years ago it was more of a taboo to talk about," said team captain Leena Al Maeena. "Today, there's more acceptance. There's a lot more companies willing to support us. So, I really think as a society we are evolving."

Perhaps the biggest symbol of this shift was Saudi Arabia's announcement last month that it would allow female athletes to compete at the Olympics for the first time at the 2012 Games.

Previously, the kingdom has been one of only three countries -- along with Brunei and Qatar -- that banned women from competing. All have now dropped the policy.

See also: Qatar's first female Olympians

I really think as a society we are evolving
Leena Al Maeena, captain of Jeddah United basketball team

Yet no female athletes have been identified so far to represent Saudi Arabia in London, and if women are sent to compete, they will still face restrictions. Women athletes must have their male guardian's permission and be accompanied by him to all events, wear appropriate Islamic dress, and refrain from mixing with men during the event.

Jeddah United's Hadeer Sadagah, 18, dreams of someday competing at the Olympics, but said: "The society is still not accepting of Saudi women playing sports."

But Al Maeena says attitudes towards female athletes are changing, and much of the reason is growing public awareness of the health benefits of sport.

Basketball helped her overcome post-partum depression following the birth of her first child. "I felt like I needed something to get better," she said. Others in the team had played basketball to help them in their battle with eating and body-image disorders.

"It really helped all these women. They went back to their normal lifestyle," Al Maeena said. "We just looked at it as something not just from an entertainment point of view. It's bigger than that."

A team photo of the women of Jeddah United.
A team photo of the women of Jeddah United.

While the women still receive criticism from conservatives, it does not deter them from taking to the court.

"We're having fun, we're all girls. We're doing something that's healthy for our bodies and our minds," said 24-year-old Nour Fitiany.

Al Maeena said she hoped the team's example would help encourage public debate about women in sport, and demonstrate to "the opposing segments in society that we're not going against our religious or cultural beliefs."

"At the end of the day, we're all law-abiding citizens who want to develop our youth," she said. "We don't want them to get into smoking and drugs and wasting their time."

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer: @SchamsCNN and writer Tim Hume: @tim_hume

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