In Saudi Arabia, a Secret Sports League Caters to Women and Girls Who Want to Play Sports

Saudi Arabia 2012

By Ann Lopez

June 04, 2012

Also aired on Public Radio International

Team sports are illegal for women in Saudi Arabia. But like their counterparts the world over, they're just as eager to show their stuff on the pitch and the field. A new soccer league has emerged to serve those women, and hopefully fight a growing health problem as well.

The sporting event I attended should never have happened.

It was a soccer match. One team wore bright yellow T-shirts and navy blue shorts. Their opponents were clad all in dark blue.

On the side lines, family and friends sat on white plastic lawn chairs, cheering on the teams. One fan painted her entire face blue. And she banged on a metal drum to spur on her favorite players.

In any other country, this would be a regular soccer game between two college teams. But these players are all women. And this game was taking place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

By convention, women do not officially play soccer in Riyadh. The city is very conservative. And if authorities got wind of this game, they'd likely shut it down.

So where the game was played in Riyadh will just have to be a mystery.

I won't tell you the names of the teams.

Or the names of the players.

The Blue team captain is 23 years old and just graduated from college. She founded this league with a friend during her freshman year. They noticed how many students enjoyed the game, so they petitioned the university to organize a team.

"I realized that if we could get the university to support a team all this talent would not go to waste," she said.

The university approved it and they got to work.

The captain says she trained herself to coach other players by purchasing DVDs on Amazon and watching soccer footage on YouTube.

They have limited access to facilities and funding. But that hasn't stopped them from playing.

Watching the game were two business women. You won't know their names either. They just started a new sports program. It targets girls from about 7 to 18 and teaches them to play team sports. Girls over 18 can get training as coaches.

It's only three months old now, but the women say there's a surge of interest.

"We can't advertise so it's all word of mouth, through Twitter and Blackberry," said the first businesswoman.

So far 30 girls are participating. Outside of private schools, it's hard to find organized sports for girls. So the program is filling that gap. The first business woman said she wants the girls to get some exercise.

"I want the girls outside, they need to run," she added.

The second businesswoman points out that parents already see a difference in their daughters.

"It changes their mindset. Parents have noticed that their girls are less wild, less rowdy," she said.

The program is also addressing a serious problem in Saudi Arabia, the growing rates of diabetes and obesity. According to the health ministry the national obesity rate is 25 percent. The rate for type 2 diabetes is 17 percent.

The women plan to integrate a healthier lifestyle into the program.

"We're not pushing weight loss. First get the girls to have fun and then next year we'll get them to starting thinking about nutrition and a healthy diet," said the second business woman.

Creating a foundation for the girls is what the Blue team captain also has in mind.

"Our generation started the game, the leagues, the structure. The next generation will have it on a silver platter. We may not get to play for a national team but we're laying the groundwork," she said.

Who knows. In 10 years Saudi Arabia might just have a formidable national women's soccer team.

The blue team beat the yellow team 3 to 2.

Ann Lopez, studio director of Public Radio International's "The World," traveled to Saudi Arabia on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP).