In a move that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, the countrys first women’s football competition has just begun.
24 teams comprising some 600 women in all, based around the three major cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, will take part in the competition which will be based initially on a league basis, before play-offs and a final to decide who will win the inaugural cup.
There is a total prize fund of 500,000 Saudi Riyals (US $133,000) to the participants.
For years authorities in the country had insisted that it was against cultural norms and what was accepted as the standards of normal behaviour for women to be involved in sporting activities. Some hardliners and Muslim clerics had even warned it would lead to immorality (without providing any direct evidence to support this).
However, since Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the country’s de facto ruler the county has become to adopt a more liberal outlook. Women have been able to drive for the first time, and the country’s strict guardianship laws have been relaxed meaning Saudi women can now travel abroad without the permission of a present or husband. They are also allowed to attend a range of sporting and entertainment events for the first time.
At the same time, the government has tried to position itself as a new venue for hosting sporting events. Boxing, golf, and tennis tournaments have all been staged there, and a Saudi Grand Prix has been added to the sporting calendar for 2021,
Tis change in policy has not come without its critics some have accused it of sports washing, hiding Saudis poor human rights record behind the patina of respectability conferred by major sports events,
However, despite the cynicism, those behind the new league are hoping that it will serve as an inspiration for more Saudi women and girls to take up football at the community level.