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Saudi women attend match; women-only car showroom opens

JEDDAH: Female Saudi supporters of Al-Ahli attend their team’s football match against Al-Batin in the Saudi Pro League at the King Abdullah Sports City on Friday. – AFP

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia allowed women to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a match Friday, as the ultraconservative kingdom eases strict decades-old rules separating the sexes. The new measure comes after Riyadh, long known for imposing harsh restrictions on women, announced it was lifting a ban prohibiting them from driving, as well as reopening cinemas.


Women supporters, all wearing the traditional black abaya robe, arrived well ahead of Friday’s kick-off in the Jeddah stadium, some in sunglasses and others with loose-fitting veils. The Islamic kingdom has announced a series of reforms initiated by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since last year. The first football match women are being allowed to attend is a clash between Saudi Premier League clubs Al-Ahli and Al-Batin in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.


Alone or accompanied by their families, many women sat in reserved seats in Jeddah’s Pearl stadium. Glass panels were set up to separate men supporters from the women and family section of the stadium. Saleh Al-Ziadi brought his three daughters to the game. “My daughters still don’t believe this is happening. They have not yet realized they will be cheering their favorite team inside the stadium,” he said.


Enthusiasm for the historic encounter began well before the scheduled 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) kick-off. Lamya Khaled Nasser, a 32-year-old football fan from Jeddah, said she was proud and looking forward to the match. “This event proves that we are heading for a prosperous future. I am very proud to be a witness of this massive change,” she told AFP. Ruwayda Ali Qassem, another Jeddah resident, called Friday a “historic day in the kingdom which culminates (in) ongoing fundamental changes”. “I am proud and extremely happy for this development and for the kingdom’s moves to catch up with civilized measures adopted by many countries,” she said.


The Saudi government said last week women would be allowed to attend a second match yesterday and a third on Thursday. The kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, has long barred them from sports arenas through strict rules that keep the sexes apart in public. But in September, hundreds of women were allowed to enter a sports stadium in the capital Riyadh, used mostly for football matches, for the first time to attend celebrations marking the country’s national day.


The easing of social controls comes as Prince Mohammed looks to repackage the oil-rich nation as more moderate and welcoming. The powerful crown prince’s “Vision 2030” program for a post-oil era stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an energy slump.


Noura Bakharji, another Jeddah resident, said she always felt bitter when her brothers came back from stadiums to tell her about the excitement of watching football matches in person. “I always watched games on TV while my brothers went to the stadiums… I asked myself repeatedly ‘Why I can’t go?'” she told AFP. “Today, things have changed. It’s a day of happiness and joy.”


Hours before the game, Saudi clubs were encouraging women to attend through tweets on social media. Some clubs are offering special abayas – traditional head-to-toe robes for Saudi women – in team colors. State-owned Saudi Airlines announced prizes of free tickets for five families who want to travel between cities to watch games.


And a spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in the United States tweeted her delight at the development. “This is more than women’s rights: today’s match between Al-Ahli and Al-Batin, and the ones to follow, are opportunities for families to come together and enjoy KSA’s national sport – soccer!” Fatimah Baeshen wrote on Twitter. “I’m rooting for the ladies – enjoy!” And the result of Friday’s game? A 5-0 defeat for Al-Batin – and a victory for women in Saudi Arabia.


Meanwhile, a Saudi private company on Thursday opened the first car showroom for women only just five months before a decision allowing females to drive takes effect. The showroom was opened in a shopping mall in the western Red Sea port city of Jeddah to allow women the freedom to choose their own cars before they hit the road. In a historic decision late last year, King Salman gave Saudi women the right to drive, abolishing an almost three-decade ban based on religious reasons.


The showroom offers a wide selection of vehicles from various makes and is staffed by women only. It also provides women with solutions to finance their purchase provided by leading banks and financial companies. The company plans to open more automobiles showrooms for women in the oil-rich kingdom. – Agencies


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