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Saudi government sanctions sports in girls' private schools

By Schams Elwazer, for CNN
May 6, 2013 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
Sarah Attar was one of two Saudi women allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Sarah Attar was one of two Saudi women allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Regulations for private schools require that girls dress modestly
  • One blogger says the announcement is a barometer of public opinion
  • Officials gauging backlash before shifting focus to public schools, she says

(CNN) -- Saudi Arabian girls will be officially allowed to practice sports in private schools for the first time, according to an education ministry announcement reported in the nation's official press agency.

The new regulations for physical education, announced Saturday, require that girls "dress modestly" and have appropriate equipment and facilities, and that female Saudi teachers have priority to supervise these activities.

"(This decision) stems from the teachings of our religion, which allows women to practice such activities in accordance with sharia," Education Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Dakhini told SPA.

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This is the first official government sanction of women's sports in schools, but some Saudis say it is not as momentous a decision as it may seem.

"This is not a big deal," said blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who writes about Saudi women's issues. "Private schools already have a physical education program, and the government knows about them. My daughter and niece both go to separate well-known private schools, and they both have sports programs."

Al-Nafjan says that although the announcement will not change anything for private school students, the decision itself could be a barometer for the introduction of sports into public girls' schools that do not have physical education programs.

"My speculation is that this might be a feeler to see if there's any backlash from society," al-Nafjan said. "Over the last few years, there have been several attempts to incorporate physical education into public schools, but they met with a lot of resistance. I think they're trying to gauge if society is more receptive or if there is still resistance."

Saudi Arabia has been taking steps to reform its view on women and sports. The ultraconservative kingdom fielded its first female athletes at the London Olympics last summer, and discussions under way could lead to women's private sports clubs being allowed to formally register with the Ministry of Sport.

The decision to send women to the Games was a rare concession in a kingdom where they are banned from driving. They cannot vote or hold public office, though that will change in 2015.

Women in Saudi Arabia also cannot marry, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian, usually the father or husband. Much of public life is segregated by gender.

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