WORLD NEWS
07/12/2017 06:36 pm ET

Saudi Arabia Allows Girls To Take Physical Education Classes

Critics who say female participation in sports is immodest blocked the move for years.

Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
Women sit during a visit by First lady Melania Trump at GE All women business process service center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017

Saudi Arabian schools are introducing school physical education classes for girls, years after conservative backlash blocked the program. 

Saudi Arabia, which has some of the most repressive rules in the world for women, will gradually introduce phys ed classes for female students when schools are back in session later this summer, Education Minister Ahmed al-Issa announced on Tuesday, according to Arab news outlets.  

The Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s advisory body to the monarchy, approved the change in 2014, but vocal critics with highly conservative interpretations of Islamic law insisted that female participation in sports was immodest and kept the classes from starting.

Details about the program’s offerings weren’t released. It’s unclear whether the classes will be mandatory or an extracurricular activity.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Ross said Tuesday it was “remarkable that [physical education for girls] was ever prohibited.” The international civil rights organization has long campaigned for Saudi officials to lift some of its strict policies, including bans on women driving and male guardianship laws, which require women get permission from men to travel abroad, marry or be released from prison.

Moving ahead with physical education for girls is part of the Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to improve happiness among Saudi citizens, officials said. Goals of the plan include getting more women in the workforce, and encouraging people to exercise. The government hopes to increase the percentage of people who exercise at least once a week from 13 percent to 40 percent. 

Earlier this week, the Shura Council called on the private sector to build more gyms for women. Last summer, Saudi Arabia sent women to the Olympic Games for the second time ever.

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