Hurdles the biggest Olympic barrier for Saudi women
Behind concrete walls and with no men in sight, Saudi women wearing shorts and short-sleeve shirts meet three times per week to play football in an all-female club in the Saudi Arabia port city of Jeddah.
Cheering them on is the Jeddah King's United coach and striker Reema Abdullah, who is also leading a campaign in the conservative Gulf nation to allow women to participate in sports and compete internationally.
Saudi Arabia has never sent a woman to compete in the Olympics. Human-rights groups say the country is violating the International Olympic Committee (IOC) charter's pledge of equality.
Human Rights Watch in a report this week called on the IOC to require that Saudi Arabia's participation in the London Olympics be contingent upon the Arab country allowing girls and women to play competitive sports.
Saudi Arabia's male athletes have qualified in several athletics and equestrian events for the London Games, and they retain hopes of sending male athletes in archery and shooting.
However, plans to send women to the Olympics remain wrapped in secrecy.
"We will watch the London Olympics and we will cheer for our men competing there, hoping that some day we can root for our women as well," Abdullah, 33, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Jeddah.
"When Saudi women get a chance to compete for their country, they will raise the flag so high," she said. "Women can achieve a lot because we are very talented and we are crazy about sports."
Since Abdullah put together Saudi Arabia's first female football club in Jeddah in 2006, teams have popped up around the country, including in the capital, Riyadh, and in Dammam, the biggest city in the oil-rich eastern province.
In 2008, seven female teams played in the first national tournament as part of a clandestine women's league. Abdullah's Jeddah King's United finished first.
Members of the team play not in a stadium but on what Abdullah describes as "a proper-size football field with grass that is surrounded by a wall".
The roster includes 35 women, from ages 13 to 35. Outside the segregated premises, the players wear long trousers, long-sleeved shirts and specially designed headscarves to cover their hair, Abdullah said.
What they are doing is illegal, even though there are no written laws in Saudi Arabia that ban and restrict women from participating in sports. The stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views.
Saudi women often find themselves the target of the attention of the kingdom's religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Shariah law on the streets and in public places such as shopping malls and university campuses.
"Nobody is saying completely 'no' to us," Abdullah said, adding that only a fraction of the country's female population - attending all-female private schools and universities - is generally tolerated to participate in sports.
"As long as there are no men around and our clothes are properly Islamic, there should be no problem," she said.
A senior sports official, who said rulers in the kingdom are not opposed to women's participation in sports, described efforts to include more girls and women in sports as "a fight between old and new" attitudes.
"We are supporting women here to be in sports but that means fighting deeply entrenched traditions in Saudi Arabia," the official said. "We are trying to overcome them and we are seeking support from the IOC to have a woman in our delegation at the London Games."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The IOC previously has criticised the Saudis for failing to send women athletes to the Olympics. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the IOC has not attached any conditions to the nation's participation in the games.
In Wednesday's report, the New York-based group said that Saudi government restrictions put sports beyond the reach of almost all women.
No physical education exists for girls in public schools and no money is allocated for women's sports in the country's institutions, including the youth ministry, the Saudi Olympic Committee and Saudi sports federations.
"It's not that Saudi Arabia doesn't have the money to do this or women who want to," said Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division who authored the 51-page report titled "Steps of the Devil".
"We have listened to Saudi promises for decades. This is not good enough."
The report's name comes from the comments of some Saudi clerics who oppose sport as "steps of the devil" that they believe would lead women to moral corruption.
Saudi Arabia's Gulf neighbour, Qatar, and the southeast Asian nation of Brunei also have never sent a woman to the Olympics.
Qatar, religiously conservative like Saudi Arabia, has been working to escape the international stigma that comes with failing to include women. Doha's bid for the 2020 Olympics has added pressure to include women on Qatar's team in London.
The country's sports officials emphasise the huge efforts and considerable resources they have invested into changing mindsets that led to Qatari women competing in international tournaments for the past three years, including the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore.
Some changes are also taking place in Saudi Arabia, said Lina Almaeena, a basketball player in Jeddah. Her team, established in 2003, has 16 women. They rent a gym in one of the city's private university for women to play three times per week.
"Five, six years ago women in sports was a taboo," Almaeena said in a phone interview. "Now we are on TV and in the newspapers all the time because the interest is high since there are so many health problems women and the society is facing."
The IOC charter states that sports are a right for everyone and bans discrimination in practicing sports on the basis of gender.
"The IOC strives to ensure the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement are universal and non-discriminatory, in line with the Olympic Charter and our values of respect, friendship and excellence," the IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in a statement.
He added that national Olympic committees "are encouraged to uphold that spirit in their delegations. The IOC does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue."
As a result of talks, Adams said Saudi Arabia included a female equestrian, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, in the country's delegation to the 2010 Youth Olympics. Malhas won a bronze medal in show jumping in Singapore, Saudi Arabia's first medal at an Olympic event for a female athlete.
Malhas may be invited to participate in the London Games by the international equestrian federation, and Saudi's national Olympic Committee has indicated it will not interfere if she is invited.
* Associated Press
Updated: February 18, 2012 04:00 AM