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Saudi Arabia Will Teach Girls Physical Education for the First Time

Until now, the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam has largely barred women from participating in sportsFAYEZ NURELDINE—AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia introduced another new reform on Tuesday as it works toward its Saudi Vision 2030, a plan laid out last year by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the economy and make life in the kingdom more enjoyable. Starting next academic year, it will allow girls at public schools to participate in physical education.

The announcement, reported by The New York Times, didn’t specify what kinds of activities would be included in the classes, but stated that they’d comply with “the rules of sharia.”

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The kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam has largely barred women from participating in sports, unless their families permitted them to work out in private settings. But its restrictions on women’s athletics have loosened in recent years with the government first formally allowing girls’ sports in private school four years ago. In February, Saudi Arabia began issuing licenses for women-only gyms, which had previously operated informally under salon and spa licenses.

The kingdom has made other reforms, too, such as giving religious police a less prominent role, which has resulted in some women showing their hair, though they’re still expected to dress in an abaya and a headscarf. It’s also being less rigorous in applying the laws that prevent women from getting a job or seeking health care without male permission, and in May, King Salman ordered a review of some of those regulations. The kingdom’s ban on female drivers, meanwhile, remains intact.

The changes are seen as efforts to boost the Saudi economy since fewer restrictions on women’s daily lives could increase their workforce participation.

No matter the motivation, the introduction of women’s physical education was welcomed by Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi academic who studies women’s history. “It is essential that girls around the kingdom have the opportunity to build their bodies, to care for their bodies and to respect their bodies,” she told the Times.

While this baby step toward bolstering women’s rights should be cheered, the reality of enacting the change may be less worthy of celebration. Schools are segregated by gender in the kingdom, and Saudi universities do not train female gym instructors. Plus, most girls’ schools don’t have sports facilities.