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Saudi Arabia to start offering physical education courses for girls

State-run schools in the kingdom are now set to begin offering the courses for girls later this year. It is part of a liberalization process in the conservative Islamic country and a response to growing rates of obesity.

The Education Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that it will introduce physical education classes "gradually" and "in accordance with (Islamic) Shariah regulations." It is unclear if the classes will be extracurricular or mandatory.

Ultra-conservatives consider physical education for women immodest, and the country adheres to a strict interpretation of Islamic law and tribal custom.

Women are banned from driving, for example, and must obtain the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad or get a passport. They must wear loose robes known as "abayas" in public, and most also cover their hair and face with black veils.

Boys and girls are also segregated in schools and university to prevent mixing between males and females who aren't relatives.

The Saudi government began introducing small reforms several years ago to open new opportunities for women and expand their participation in the labor force.

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Health issues at stake

Saudi authorities have tended to frame the issue of women's sport in health terms to bypass conservative objections.

According to the kingdom's Vision 2030 reform plan, introduced in 2016, only 13 percent of the population exercises at least once a week, and the plan aims to boost that to 40 percent.

It aims to raise life expectancy from 74 years to 80 years.

The Shura Council approved the introduction of physical education for girls in 2014, but the decision was not immediately implemented after it faced opposition from clerics who decried it as "Westernization."

The council opened the door to licensing women's gyms earlier this year. 

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'Historic' move

"Sports is empowerment," Lina Almaeena, a member of the advisory Shura Council who founded the kingdom's first female sports club, basketball team Jeddah United, told the Associated Press agency. "It's a historic announcement."

"One of our challenges was always the logistics. We didn't have sports facilities in schools. Another challenge was instructors, so now they've started on training the trainers," Almaeena added.

The government appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar to lead a women's section of the national General Sports Authority in 2016.

The kingdom sent two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and four to the 2016 games.

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jbh/gsw (Reuters, AP)

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