Girls Unallowed: Saudi Keeps Ban on Women in Football Stadiums

The Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied that it will allow women to attend matches in Riyadh after an official at King Fahad Stadium said they are ready to welcome foreign families only at a friendly between the national team and New Zealand today.

“SAFF confirms that there has been no official announcement to allow families to enter King Fahad Stadium in the capital Riyadh to attend matches at the friendly OSN Cup that will begin tonight (Thursday),” said a statement published on the federation website. “There is no truth to reports circulated over the past hours that families will be allowed to attend matches.”

The denial from SAFF came after Sulaiman al-Yousef, manager of King Fahad Stadium, told online news site Sabq that while the ban on Saudi women at stadiums remains in place, foreign women and children will be allowed to attend the games. “The stadium is fully ready to deal with family attendance,” he said, adding that special security measures has been taken and that the northern gate has been dedicated for them.

The OSN Cup is a friendly football tournament organized by SAFF and sponsored by television network OSN. The first edition of the tournament will feature Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Arab Emirates.

President of SAFF Ahmed Eid said last May that it was not up to him to allow women to attend football matches in Saudi Arabia, adding that this decision must come from higher authorities in the kingdom.

“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper at the time. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London in a step that was described by the president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge as a “major boost for gender equality.”

In 2006 Saudi Arabia backed down on barring women from attending a friendly football match against Sweden in Riyadh after protest from Swedish authorities.

When questioned about it in parliament, then Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said “it is important that Sweden very clearly speaks out when women are discriminated against.”

The Saudis later assured the Swedish football association and the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh that everyone is welcome, including Saudi women. Some Swedish women were seen attending the match, but they were seated in the media area away from the regular stands.

UPDATE: Despite repeated denial by Saudi officials, including Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, President of Youth Welfare, it appears that some Saudi women did attend the match against New Zealand. Al Arabiya posted a photo late on Thursday showing a woman in niqab and two girls sitting next to her in the blue seats of King Fahad Stadium in Riyadh.

Photo of New Zealand football fan courtesy of Alejandro De La Cruz via Flickr