Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 July 2019

Physical education for all Saudi girls under way

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, vice president for women’s affairs at the General Authority of Sports, said every girl in Saudi Arabia would be affected by the ministry of education’s decision to begin offering physical education for them in public schools

Saudi and expatriate girls practice basketball at a private sports club in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hasan Jamali / AP
Saudi and expatriate girls practice basketball at a private sports club in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hasan Jamali / AP

Women have welcomed Saudi Arabia’s announcement this week to begin offering physical education for girls in public schools, as the ministry of education — in co-operation with the General Authority of Sports — gears up for intensive workshops to implement the decision in the next academic year.

Sports for women has been a somewhat controversial issue in the kingdom, where some conservatives deem it immodest. However, the government has made great strides in bringing in societal reforms in recent years, allowing women more participation in the workforce.

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, vice president for women’s affairs at the General Authority of Sports, said the ministry of education’s decision to include physical education for girls in the curriculum was an important step in fostering an active society.

“Every single girl [in Saudi Arabia] will be affected by this, from grade school to high school,” she told The National in a phone interview on Wednesday. “The next steps are intensive workshops, led by the ministry of education, to train PE teachers and to develop the curriculum for the delivery of physical content into the schools.”

Princess Reema stressed the fruitful co-operation between the sports and education sectors, and said they plan to discuss integrating the curriculum into higher education.

“We’re also working with the ministry of labour to create the training and vocational programming in colleges, so that we have the full spectrum and value chain of employable individuals graduating, whether vocational or higher education,” she said. “It’s one thing to instigate a sports economy, but if you have no one to work in it, then you basically will never be able to launch.”

The General Authority of Sports will assist in developing curricula for both physical education teachers and the actual schools.

“I am very honoured to be alive and a part of the team that can even add one per cent of value to this,” said Princess Reema.

“Having physical education in schools, supporting that and integrating sports into the education system, even higher education, is one of the nationally transformative projects that the General Authority of Sports has committed to as part of our 2030 Vision engagement,” she added, referring to the economic reform plan to wean the country off oil.

Lina Almaeena, a member of Saudi Arabia's advisory Shura Council, also welcomed the “historical” announcement.

“This is absolutely big news, and we’ve been waiting for physical education in government schools for a while as the private sector has had,” said Ms Almaeena, who founded the country’s first female sports company, basketball team Jeddah United. “Of course, there are challenges, but things have been moving fast and this is just the beginning.”

Ms Almaeena said that now is an exciting time for women and youth in Saudi Arabia, as the support for women in the sports and work sectors is on the incline.

“Women in Saudi Arabia are evolving, and we are going through the natural transition that other, much older societies, have gone through. We are transforming,” she said.

Donya Al Mously, 31, a Saudi national residing in Dubai, said she believed that everyone — boys and girls — should be able to take part in physical education.

“I really never understood the reasoning behind not allowing girls to do physical education,” said the mother-of-two. “It has nothing to with being ‘modest’ or not, it’s about promoting health and movement among our younger generation.

“It’s important to be involved in some kind of activity on a daily basis, and this should be provided by all schools, be it private or public.”

Another Saudi national living in Dubai, Ghada Bakhorji, said she too welcomed the education ministry’s move to provide a platform for girls to stay healthy.

“I studied in a private school in Saudi up until the 7th Grade, and back then it never really occurred to me that public schools did not offer physical education for girls,” said the 24-year-old. “I’m really happy about this decision because we really need to start introducing healthy habits, especially since we have high rates of obesity-related diseases.

“I don’t think people understand just how important exercising is, and we need to make it part of our daily lives and culture.”

In 2012, Saudi Arabia made history when it sent two women to represent their country in the Olympic Games. In 2016, it sent four female athletes.

According to a study published this month in the BMC Public Health journal, 38.4 per cent of women in Saudi Arabia had a body mass index of 30 or higher, which is how the World Health Organisation defines obesity.

Dr Mashael Alshaikh, a Saudi citizen and the lead author of The Ticking Time Bomb in Lifestyle-related Diseases Among Women in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, said part of the problem stems from a lack of facilities and preventive health care for women.

“Also, the social norms and the effect of urbanisation, such as importing cheap labour to help the woman in the house, this limits the physical activity, even inside the house,” Dr Alshaikh told The National earlier this month.

“Data from the WHO shows that the countries with gender inequality have more health risks.”

On Wednesday she welcomed the decision for public schools to offer physical education for girls, saying it was a great step forward towards an exercise culture in the kingdom.

Updated: July 12, 2017 04:36 PM