On July 11, 2017, the Saudi Education Ministry announced that in the 2017-18 schoolyear, public schools for girls would be introducing physical education programs, in accordance with religious law and where suitable facilities and trained teachers are available. This announcement is part of a series of recent Saudi measures aimed at improving women's status in the kingdom: reducing requirements that women be accompanied by male guardians, allowing women to drive, and allowing women to enter stadiums to attend sports events.
The introduction of physical education in girls' schools was harshly criticized by conservative elements in the kingdom, particularly by clerics, who argued that it was against the spirit of Islam. For example, Senior Saudi Clerics Council member 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Khader determined that it was forbidden "because it leads to acts of corruption that are apparent to any reasonable person" and it constitutes "imitating Satan's deeds."
In response, 'Abir Al-'Ali, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, lambasted the critics and their arguments. She wrote that the view of women they promote – i.e. that they are a source of licentiousness and moral corruption – have made many women lose confidence in their capabilities and in themselves. These critics, she said, were excluding women from society and thwarting Saudi Arabia's advancement and development.
It should be noted that according to reports in the Saudi media, the rollout of the initiative is still in the initial stages, and is not yet fully implemented in all public schools for girls. It was also reported that programs had been launched for training physical education teachers and development of gymnasiums in some schools across the country.
Saudi girls playing soccer. (Source: Sayidaty.net, July 11, 2017.)
The following are translated excerpts from Ms. Al-'Ali's column:
"As usual, like in any matter concerning women ['s education] or anything else, the Education Ministry's recent decision to allow physical education for girls in education [al institutions], starting with the next schoolyear, was greeted with raging controversy in society. Supporters reasoned that this move, which had reached a very advanced stage, was another victory for girls' education in the kingdom. Opponents saw it as a plot aimed at Westernizing [Saudi] society, distancing women from [the values of] modesty and innocence, and pushing aside fatwas by some senior Saudi clerics.
"In any case, the Education Ministry is now facing a real test of its ability to implement this decision... in the near future. The most important thing is [for it to] block the attempts to thwart, disrupt, or delay the [implementation of] this decision, [on the part of elements] both inside and outside the ministry.
"The main reason for the objection to physical education for girls – despite the ministry's diligence in linking it to the rules of Islamic religious law [and to prove that they do not contradict them] – is the conspiracy theory that there is a global plot specifically targeting Saudi women. [The proponents of this theory] rammed it down society's throat to such an extent that many people believe in it, whether they support the issue in question or are [just] being dragged along with the crowd of opponents. The experts who created this conspiracy theory find support for their position in the fatwas of sheikhs – one of whom maintains that physical education constitutes 'imitating Satan's deeds'... that is, a practical expression of the deeds [of Satan] connected primarily to the issue of what women wear during athletic activity. The idea is that, as soon as [girls] begin to engage in athletics in school they will begin to strip down until they are naked, regardless of their upbringing at home or their education in school, and regardless of the rules of [modesty] that are customary at schools and universities. Physical education [classes] have been held for years in most private girls' schools and we have never heard of or seen [girls'] proper dress becoming improper.
"According to these [experts], this is a type of Westernization of [Saudi] society – an ambiguous term used only [when clerics] oppose something that does not suit their intentions. [However, when it refers to] technology, old and new, such as glasses, cars, airplane flights for tourism purposes, or Islamic outreach... they see no Westernization.
"The opponents condemn decisions such as [providing] physical education for girls because, in their view, [these decisions] are part of the implementation of international agreements to which Saudi Arabia is party, along with other countries of the world – such as the Convention on the Elimination [of All Forms] of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, which Saudi Arabia signed in 2000 amidst reservations... about the sections [of the agreement] that are counter to Islam, such as [those dealing with] homosexuality.
"The opponents also think that studying and implementing a culture of physical education is not compatible with women's physical characteristics, and they reiterate that women were created to stay at home and give birth to and raise children. They are ignoring the fact that in early Islam, the women were partners [in social life] and were blessed with physical strength and social status. They also ignore the fact that restricting women's role to housework is absolutely groundless and is incompatible with the current reality, in which there is no home without a working woman, who by sallying forth into the battlefield of life contributes to building her family and to rearing her childrenand bears responsibility like men – and sometimes even more than men – with her ability to balance private and public life...
"There are several reasons why many of our girls have lost confidence in their capabilities and in themselves, and consequently also find it difficult to deal courageously with life, looking with hesitation and helplessness at the modern concepts of life that they need – such as equality, justice, freedom – and taking responsibility for themselves and for their society and homeland... [Among the reasons for this are] the perception of women as entities embodying [the traits of] licentiousness and corruption, who the moment the opportunity arises hasten to put them into practice. Teaching young girls that they are expected to deviate from the straight path when they live a normal life – like having physical education in school or driving a car... – and treating them as such from a young age, convinces them that is indeed how they are. [Furthermore, it also] teaches all boys to [perpetuate] this flawed and self-serving view of women.
"This generation's women, like all generations past or future, are a significant element in the building of various aspects of life – cultural, social, economic, and more. Exclusion from this or any other aspect prevents [society] from marching ahead with the flow of life, which advances while leaving behind the backward who take years off the life of their countries by concocting plots, developing theories around them, and [trying to] convince everyone of them. They shame Saudi Arabia and her people with these obscure views and hamper its progress toward development and growth..."
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), July 12, 2017.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1316, The Saudi Royal Decree Easing Guardianship Requirements For Women, And Responses To It In Saudi Arabia, June 2, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7111, Saudi King Lifts Ban On Women Driving: Over A Decade Of MEMRI Reports And Clips On The Issue Of The Ban, September 27, 2017.
 Twasul.info, July 11, 2017.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), September 12, 2017 and November 1, 2017; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 16, 2017; Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), November 10, 2017.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 23, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 18, 2017.
 Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on September 7, 2000.