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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Saudi women football fans finally in grandstand

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For years Areej al-Ghamdi could only cheer her favorite football team from home, but everything changed on Friday when Saudi Arabia allowed women into the stadium for the first time.

The university student was among around 300 Saudi women who thronged Pearl stadium in the Red Sea city of Jeddah after the ultra-conservative kingdom eases decades-old rules separating  the sexes. "I came with my father and my brother -- we're fans of Al-Ahli," said Ghamdi of the Saudi Premier League club facing off against Al-Batin.

The young woman said she always used to cheer her home team from the comfort of her living room. "We love the club very much, and our home would often become an arena for supporters," she said. "This is the first time we'll be cheering for real, not just in front of the television," said Ghamdi, who wore a black abaya robe and a black scarf with a green Al-Ahli scarf round her neck.

"It is so much better here." The game began at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT), but two hours before the historic kick-off enthusiasm was palpable as women supporters began arriving at the stadium.

Among the first were a woman accompanied by a younger female and a girl. A boy sat next to them in seats that had been reserved for women who come alone or with members of their families, namely male relatives.

The women entered the stadium through a special gate, while male supporters filed in through a separate entrance. Saudi Arabia, 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.

Glass panels were set up to separate men supporters from the women and family section of the stadium. "This event proves that we are heading for a prosperous future. I am very proud to be a witness of this massive change," Lamya Khaled Nasser, a 32-year-old fan from the Red Sea city, told AFP.

Ruwayda Ali Qassem, another Jeddah resident, spoke of 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. 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 favourite team inside the stadium," he said. The women entering the venue waited in long queues to be searched by women security personnel who wore orange vests over their black abayas, while inside the stadium another team directed them to their seats.

Jeddah resident Noura Bakharji was among those who patiently waited for her turn, and for a reason. Bakharji said she always felt bitter when her brothers came home 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."

Under Saudi Arabia's existing guardianship system, a male family member -- normally the father, husband or brother -- must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and a host of other activities. Fatimah Baeshen, spokeswoman at the Saudi embassy in Washington "rooted for the ladies" in a message on Twitter.

"As we speak; Saudi women fans are entering soccer stadiums! 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! I'm rooting for the ladies -- enjoy!" Baeshen tweeted.

Friday's match was the first in a series that will be open to women: a second is due to take place on Saturday and a third on January 18.

And in June, as part of a reforms drive led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, authorities are lifting a ban that prohibited Saudi women from driving. And the result of Friday's game? A 5-0 defeat for Al-Batin -- and a victory for women in Saudi Arabia.

-AFP, Jeddah

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