The Latest Freedom for Saudi Women: Watching Live Soccer

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More than 60 years after the establishment of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, the gates of a soccer stadium opened to female spectators in the kingdom for the first time on Friday, in one of the first concrete measures aimed at relaxing strict social rules.

“I’m so excited! I can’t believe this day has finally come,” said

May Mahdi,

a soccer fan from Jeddah. “I literally thought of dressing like a guy to sneak into a game a couple of times before. Thank God now we don’t need to do that.”

Lifting the ban is part of the kingdom’s effort to loosen social rules. The Saudi government said last year that women would be allowed to drive from June. Cinemas are planned to reopen soon after a 35-year-old ban.

The changes are spearheaded by Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman,

who is overseeing a long-term economic reform plan known as Vision 2030, focused on ending the dependence on oil revenue. Liberalizing the country’s ultraconservative society—such as by including more women in the workforce—is an important component.

Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most conservative societies, influenced by tribal customs and an austere interpretation of Islam. Women in particular have long been subject to strict rules, many of which still apply. They are required to have a male guardian—typically their husband or father—whose permission they need to marry or travel abroad. Women must wear floor-length gowns known as abayas outside their homes and many restaurants and cafes are open to men only.

Even the new opening in sports stadiums has its limitations. As is the case in most public places, women are restricted to “family sections” reserved for women and their male relatives that are separate from the men-only, or “singles” sections.

Friday’s game, which took place in the coastal city of Jeddah, was played by two local teams—Al Batin and the favorite, Al Ahli, which won 5-0.

“This is great. I always wanted my daughter to join us—and the time has finally come,” said 40-year-old Thamer Hassan, who attended the match with his four children.

Ruba Al Badri, a 19-year-old college student, said that, for her, it’s all about soccer. “I’m a die-hard Al Ahli fan,” she said, wearing the team’s green-and-white scarf around her neck. “It’s only normal that we get to participate in this, too.”

The government’s announcement in October that stadiums would soon open to women has ignited a debate that has focused less on sport and more on women’s place in society.

Many turned to

Twitter

to voice their opposition, calling the decision immoral and against religion—underscoring the challenge the government faces as it tries to liberalize society.

“It is good for women to do sport for their physical fitness. But as for women attending sport matches, I am the most opposed of all, and I do not see how it is permissible,” Sheikh

Mohammed Al Arefe,

an influential cleric with 20 million Twitter followers, said after the October announcement. “Women should only leave their homes if it is absolutely necessary and attending sport matches could lead them to cheer out loud or to wear inappropriate clothes.”

The opposition may have been a factor in sparse attendance at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City Stadium on Friday night. Of the roughly 10,000 seats reserved for families, around 4,400 were taken, according to official figures. Overall, around 24,000 spectators attended the game, far short of the stadium’s capacity of 60,000.

“It was great for a first turn out,” said Lina Almaeena, who has campaigned for greater participation of women in sport and who is a member of the Shoura Council, a legislative body appointed by the king. “Al Batin team is a newcomer to the league, and the procedure for families to buy tickets is new and unfamiliar.”

The stadium in Jeddah is one of only three in Saudi Arabia that have been modified to allow for women, adding separate family sections and women’s bathrooms. The other two are in Riyadh and Dammam, which will host their first soccer matches open to women in the coming days. The country’s other stadiums remain solely for men.

The hashtag “people welcome women into stadiums” was trending Friday in Saudi Arabia on Twitter, which is wildly popular there and closely monitored by the government.

“I am making a point of attending today’s match to make a statement that we will attend and we will participate and we will support our nation in the change that is happening,” said

Amal Sindi,

vice dean of the faculty of dentistry at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University.

Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

Appeared in the January 13, 2018, print edition as ‘Saudi Women Cheer a Cause at Stadium.’

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