Saudi sports authorities have launched the kingdom's first women's football league. As female activists who fought for similar freedoms remain in jail, is it a sign of real reform or "sportswashing?"
Saudi Arabian officials announced the country's first women's soccer league on Monday.
The move is part of a series of reforms that tread the line between balancing conservative and liberal elements in Saudi society and international pressure. Until recently, Saudi women have largely been barred from practicing sports in public.
Creation of the Women's Football League (WFL) was condemned by Amnesty International as a distraction from an "abysmal human rights situation" but cautiously welcomed by experts, who saw it as an achievement for Saudi women.
The country was trying to use the glamour of sport as a public relations tool to improve its international image, said Amnesty's Lynn Maalouf. The "drive to improve the overall situation of women in Saudi Arabia can only be welcomed when it goes hand-in-hand with the inclusion of the brave individuals who fought for decades for this change," she added.
Charlotte Lysa, who recently completed a PhD thesis on women's football in Saudi and Qatar at the University of Oslo, said while "it's very important to keep attention on those who are in jail who have been working for women's rights for years, this is not the only way of promoting women's rights." While public relations may be a component of Saudi authorities' efforts, "it's not the whole story either," she said.
Starting in March, the WFL competition for women over 17 will be staged in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. It will involve preliminary rounds, leading to regional winners competing for a WFL Champions Cup, with a total prize money of 500,000 riyals (€120,679/$133,333).
A national women's team represented the kingdom in a regional indoor competition last year, but the first local clubs were established at places like universities as far back as 2006. Some players from those clubs have complained of criticism in the ultra-conservative kingdom where many women still refuse to play due to family and social pressure. But a different type of discrimination also came from outside the country: FIFA, the game's governing international body, only began allowing players to wear hijabs during matches from 2014.
Women were first permitted to watch soccer matches in separate "family" areas in 2018. The following year gender segregation in restaurants was lifted, and women were given the right to drive and travel without a male guardian.
But Saudi women still face harsh restrictions in their daily lives. Women can still be imprisoned or flogged for disobedience. Their status as minors in the eyes of Saudi courts means that their testimony is given less weight than men's, and their inability to file lawsuits or leave government-run shelters on their own leaves them open to domestic violence. They also need permission to marry or open a bank account and face arrest by religious police for wearing immodest clothing.
Mahfoud Amara, a sports policy professor at Qatar University, said the WFL may be about testing the waters.
"This is sending a strong signal internally — particularly to the conservative wing in Saudi Arabia — that now the authorities are serious about moving forward with regards to their reforms," he said. "Maybe they are just trying to start with this as a first step and see how this is going to be received and then move to another level."
As Saudi Arabia recognizes the economic and soft power aspects of sports, it wants to be seen as meeting international standards for equal representation in sports, including by having women in decision-making in sports organizations, Amara said.
It is precisely that soft power aspect that Amnesty's Maalouf says is used to obscure "the abysmal situation for the very women and men who fought for such change."
A number of prominent women's rights activists remain in prison even after some of the changes they fought for have become reality. Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, was arrested in May 2018 for campaigning against the guardianship system and for the right to drive. She has said she was tortured while in detention and is currently facing trial. Amnesty International reported this month that Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were all awaiting trial.
Last year the authorities allowed foreign stars popular among more liberal Saudis, such as Mariah Carey, to perform, which drew international attention. It doesn't necessarily reflect more prosaic realities in the kingdom.
The governor of Mecca last week ordered the arrest of female rapper Ayasel Slay for "insulting the customs" of the holy city with her music video, in which she praised women from the city as "powerful and beautiful." The video sparked an instant negative response on social media, with many users posting racist tropes insulting her based on her Eritrean background.
After Slay took down the video in response, a Deutsche Welle journalist who had reported on the story found herself the victim of a smear campaign in Saudi media. DW's Ruwa Hallak was accused of having been secretly commissioned by a well-known media company from the Gulf region that is seen as hostile to Saudi Arabia.
DW rejected the accusation on Twitter, expressing surprise Hallak had been exposed to a "campaign without any foundation … [Hallak] works exclusively for DW contrary to what has been claimed in this campaign."
Legitimizing grassroots change
Charlotte Lysa said the efforts to increase the inclusion of many other Saudi women in sports would have a big impact on the ground.
"In Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, you have people who are working within the system, against the system and with the system in different ways. So being against or for the government is not necessarily the only way to try and change one situation or the situation for their country,"
"To what degree they will find support from all of society is difficult to say, but legitimizing the idea of women's sports from above makes it easier for them to try and change [conservative] attitudes at a grassroots level."