cross-posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives
Young women who live in Saudi Arabia today are increasingly being exposed to the influence of the outside world. There are those who are sheltered from television, music, and the media, but most college-aged girls now own ipods, cell phones, and jeans. Many of these young women are pursuing their education to the university level at institutions which have opened up separate and close-to-equal college programs for females. These are the girls with whom I have had the pleasure of associating during my stay here in the Kingdom. When DH accepted a job at a university in Riyadh, I was fortunate to find employment with the same institution in their women’s college as a health and physical education instructor.
When I arrived here in August, I discovered that the program was dismal. In the public schools, physical education is strictly forbidden for girls, and in the private schools the PE programs are rudimentary. At the university level, the girls attended 4 semesters of HPE. The classes consisted of one hour per week of theory (health & nutrition, first aid, anatomy, and pregnancy & childbirth) and one hour of practical exercise. I was placed over the prac courses. At the time I arrived these were one hour of aerobic exercise given to classes of 30-40 girls in a small dance studio--without music. There I was, jumping up and down, trying to get these beautiful veiled princesses to put on pants, move around during their periods, and elevate the heart rate with no space and no beat other than me singing out, “1-2-3-4!” The first month I was there, I attempted to get approval for music with no success. I then focused my efforts on facilities.
I learned from the girls themselves that it was counterproductive to fight against the local culture. I must work within the system if I wanted to see change. In particular, our student body president is a young woman who believes that Arabic women can accomplish much within the limitations that are imposed. She began to work toward the possibility of a women’s basketball team. Our HPE faculty began to point out to our supervisors how much better the facilities were at other colleges. We were lagging behind those schools which had full gymnasiums for their women’s programs! Soon, we were given the use of 2 outdoor basketball courts formerly used by the men’s side. We had to wait until the courts were completely walled in so that the girls could not be seen while exercising. These courts were finished in January, and we quickly added basketball, volleyball, badminton and soccer to our program. The first day that we went out on the courts, one of the girls confessed to me that she had never in her life exercised out of doors.
Some of the young women at our university had received education in the US, in other countries, or in private schools, and were excited about the changes. Early in February, I read that the Arab News had published an article about the first-ever women’s football (soccer) match in Saudi Arabia. It was held Jan. 22, 2008 in Dammam between Prince Muhammad ibn Fahd University and the Al-Yamamah Women’s College of Riyadh. Though the match was open to women spectators only, the team members broke social expectations that women must be lady-like and demure at all times. I knew the time was right for our basketball team.
I am not a basketball coach, nor do I have much experience with the game. In my Nike Air Max I barely stand five feet tall. But our student body president collected more than 150 names of girls interested in coming out for our team. Someone had to step up. I am thankful that I live in the day of the internet so I was able to go online for rules, training techniques, fun drills and other aspects of coaching basketball. For weeks now, I’ve been dribbling a ball around and practicing my shooting so I won’t be too embarrassed in front of the girls. And I can now report that in this Women’s History Month of 2008 I am a little part of making history in this area of the world as our girls start their practices! We plan to compete with Al-Yamamah later in the semester. The interior design department is hard at work designing outfits for our team in which we will be able to move, yet which fit the stringent standards for women’s wear. Our games won’t be filmed by camera crews, and the spectators will be only a few of the mothers and sisters who wish us well. But to me, this semester in Riyadh has been as important as walking on the moon. One small step for womankind.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
cross-posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives