(Updates with Human Rights Watch reaction, paragraphs 5-6)
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the latest move to loosen restrictions on women, Saudi Arabia has announced that girls in private schools will be allowed to play sports in the kingdom for the first time, according to a report by CNN.
There was no official word as to whether the ban on girls playing sports would also be lifted for girls in state-run schools.
The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted Mohammed al-Dakhini, an education ministry spokesman, as saying the decision to allow girls in private schools to play sports “stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities in accordance with sharia.” He was referring to Islamic sharia law, which guides most activities in the kingdom.
According to SPA, girls playing sports must adhere to “decent” dress codes, and female teachers will be given priority in supervising the girls.
Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that bans girls in state-run schools from playing sports and urged the government to extend its new ruling to publicly funded schools.
“All of Saudi Arabia’s women and girls should be able to enjoy the social, educational, and health benefits of taking part in sports,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at the U.S.-based rights group. "If the government can take down this barrier for private schools, it should give girls and women in publicly funded schools the same benefit.”
The decision to allow some girls to play sports is in contrast to a 2009 pronouncement by a member of the country’s highest clerical council who said playing sports might tear girls’ hymens, thus causing them to “lose their virginity,” according to a Reuters report.
The move to allow girls in private schools to play sports follows recent decisions by Saudi King Abdullah to loosen various restrictions on women.
Last week, Saudi Arabia launched its first public service announcement against domestic violence, featuring an image of a woman dressed in a niqab with only her eyes visible, one of which was visibly blackened.
In the last month, the kingdom announced that it would allow women to practise law and to ride bicycles and motorbikes. In both cases, women would be under male supervision. The riding of bicycles and motorbikes would be only for entertainment, not transportation, and the woman would be expected to wear a full, body-cloaking abaya while riding.
Earlier this spring, the Saudi newspaper al Watan reported that the government will license women’s sports clubs and gyms. Since 2010, such clubs and gyms were allowed only if they were attached to hospitals as health centers.
By a decree of King Abdullah, 30 women were appointed to the consultative Shura Council, representing 20 percent of the members, but must be segregated from the men in the chamber.
Last year, for the first time in history, two women from Saudi Arabia participated in the Olympic Games, competing in judo and track. Women were given the right to work at shops catering to women, such as lingerie stores where sales attendants previously were male. Women also were given the right to vote and run for office starting in the 2015 municipal elections.
However, women are still not permitted to drive cars in Saudi Arabia and are subject to male guardianship for permission to attend school, take jobs or leave the country, among other things.
(Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in London)