Saudi entrepreneur Lina Al-Meena addresses audience on importance of playing sports
Saudi entrepreneur Lina Al-Meena addresses audience on importance of playing sports

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Sarah Attar is training hard with hopes of representing Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

"I cannot see them not sending women next time," the Saudi-American track and field athlete said in a phone interview from her home in San Diego. "And if I could run in Rio, I think it would be awesome."

The 22-year-old was one of the first two women to compete in the Olympics on behalf of Saudi Arabia when they went to the last games in London in 2012. Under longstanding pressure from the International Olympic Committee to include Saudi women, the conservative kingdom sent Attar to compete in the 800-meter race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhan to compete in judo. The two women’s sports attire fully covered their hair and bodies.

Attar finished last and more than half a minute slower than her nearest competitor but hundreds of spectators gave her a standing ovation as she crossed the finish line.

So far, there is no information about the women Saudi Arabia might send to the games next year, but there is little chance the number, if any, will be high.

"I am going to just keep training hard and pushing hard the competitive level that I am capable of," said Attar, who runs six days a week for an average weekly distance of 50 miles. Some days her workout regimen includes cross and strength trainings along with yoga. Attar, who holds dual citizenship, does not cover her hair on a daily basis.

It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Attar’s physical exertions are in stark contrast to the daily realities of so many girls and women in Saudi Arabia, her father’s homeland. There, physical education is banned for girls in public school, female-friendly sports facilities are scarce and women’s overall movement is restricted by a ban on driving and a guardianship law that only allows them to travel or appear in public with a male relative.

Research on ‘Killing Them Softly’

A spate of research, most recently the December report "Killing Them Softly" from the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, flags the medical hardships of sedentary habits for Saudis overall, but particularly girls and women. Ossob Mohamud, an author of the report, said in a recent email interview that the Institute for Gulf Affairs is trying to raise awareness of Saudi women’s health challenges and is urging international organizations to press the conservative monarchy to allow women to play sports.

"We have written several letters to the United Nations claiming the human rights abuses against women," said Mohamud. "We have also been in contact with sports organizations like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, demanding they ban Saudi Arabia from all sporting events until they change their laws and bans on women in sports."

The Institute of Gulf Affairs is also flagging the matter through No Women, No Play, a project focused on helping women in Saudi Arabia attain full political, social economic and legal rights.

In the kingdom, Lina Al-Meena is an entrepreneur who is bringing change from inside. In 2006, she created the sports company Jeddah United, which offers sports facilities for use by young people and adults –male and female–to train and coach future trainers. The city of Jeddah is widely thought to have a less restrictive culture than other parts of the kingdom.

The idea for the company occurred to her after she finished her private-school education and discovered she no longer had a way to keep practicing and playing sports. Since then Al-Meena–who played volley-ball from elementary school through college–has been the captain team of Jeddah United’s female volley-ball team. For her success in starting the business, Al-Meena was ranked 21st on the 2014 Forbes list of the 200 most powerful Arab women.

When she started Jeddah United, Al-Meena remembers encountering some opposition from those who worried that sports leads to gender mixing. "But we were also supported by people of the medical field, by the ministry of health, who understand what we have tried to do from a health perspective," she said.

Costly Restrictions

Restricting women from playing sports or enjoying other physical activities has been costly for the kingdom, says Al-Meena. "The government spends 19 billion riyals [$5 billion] treating illnesses related to obesity."

Nearly 24 percent of women in the kingdom and 14 percent of men are obese, finds a 2007 survey conducted by the King Saud University.

That survey is cited by authors of the "Killing Them Softly" report, who caution that it is hard to know the current state of public health since the "Saudi government refuses to allow the UN or World Health Organization to research and investigate women’s health vis-a-vis their treatment in society."

Based on the available data, authors of the Gulf Institute report find obesity linked to decreased self-confidence, lowered likelihood of marriage, reduced fertility, higher rates of divorce, and marital infidelity. It is also linked to several medical hazards, including widespread diabetes.

The prevalence of diabetes was higher for males than females; almost 15 percent versus 12 percent, the authors find. But women pay a higher price for inactivity in other ways, including rising rates of hypertension and osteoporosis.

Compared to male counterparts, Saudi women suffer worse Vitamin-D deficiency, which is caused by a lack of sun exposure. Nearly 41 percent of women and 18 percent of men had Vitamin-D deficiency, according to a 2013 study published by the department of medicine of King Saud University.

It’s a remarkable statistic for a country with such abundant sunshine. The deficiency is likely caused by restrictions that keep women from leaving their homes, said Mohamud, co-author of the report "Killing Them Softly." She declined to connect women’s custom of wearing a full, or face-and-body-covering veil to low levels of Vitamin D.

However, other researchers, including at the King Saud University, do connect "cultural clothing practices" to Vitamin D deficiency and, subsequently, to breast cancer.

Over 8,000 Saudi Arabian women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and around 50 to 60 percent of cases are detected at an advanced stage, according to the Saudi Cancer Registry at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. Breast cancer has climbed to 24 percent of all cancer cases in 2012 from around 8 percent in 2002. Breast cancer ranks first among cancerous diseases in females in the monarchy.

Al-Meena, the founder of Jeddah United, was one of 10 Saudi women named "Pink Warriors" for climbing Mount Everest in 2012 to educate on the importance of having a physical activity in order to limit the likelihood of developing a breast cancer. She said Saudi female inactivity also contributes to depression. "I have seen a lot of depressed students due to the lack of movement," she said, adding that it is often ignored because depression is not as visible as obesity.

Pent-Up Demand for Sports

Attar and Al-Meena both say women and girls in the kingdom would like more physical activity and sports involvement.

Attar addressed hundreds of girls last year at a school in Jeddah about her athletic experiences and says they provided enthusiastic feedback. "A lot of the girls were handing me notes, telling me how much I inspired them to strive to participate in sports," Attar said. However, the girls told her they didn’t have the proper facilities to do it.

Attar, who does not live in Saudi Arabia, advised the girls to keep "build communities" by sharing their passion for sports and talking to other people who could be interested. "It is a matter of time, things will progress," she said.

Women who can afford expensive memberships at private gyms can overcome some of the restrictions on activity. Some may also host fitness classes in their own apartments.

On its website, the Saudi Ministry of Health lists home workouts and 15-minutes of walking around the neighborhood as sufficient physical activity.

Mahmud, from the Institute of Gulf Affairs, disagrees. "These workouts and walking regimens absolutely cannot begin to tackle the health issues. So in my opinion no important and effective initiatives are being taken," she said.

Al-Meena, meanwhile, is confident that gradual change is underway. It started, she says, when the deceased King Abdullah appointed Arwa Al-Mtabqati as a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Equestrian Federation, to the Saudi Olympic Committee in 2008, breaking a gender barrier.

Al-Meena stressed the potent symbolism of the appointment in a country at once deeply religious and deeply devoted to horseback riding. It is widely believed among Muslims that the prophet Muhammad used to race one of his wives and encouraged children to learn to ride horses. "This was a smart, very planned move. I can say that was the turning point in a lot of ways in the history of women in sports in this country."

Recently, Saudi Arabia expressed interest in co-hosting the Olympic Games with neighboring Bahrain. However, the kingdom suggested that it hosts only male athletes while women compete in Bahrain. The International Olympic Committee rejected the proposed segregated Olympics.

Attar agrees with the decision. "It seems illogical and it would take away what the Olympics is about: bringing people together," she said. "I don’t think by separating the participants it would be what we know as the Olympics."