Sports News

Saudi women at World Cup talk up new found soccer freedoms at home

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s soccer team may have been thrashed in its first World Cup match, but Saudi women attending the tournament said they still had lots to celebrate after a ban on them attending matches at home was lifted earlier this year.

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Yakir Zaki was one of many fans who had no illusions about her team’s performance on Thursday when they suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of host side Russia.

“They didn’t play well. They were lost in the game. They didn’t know what to do,” Zaki told Reuters near Red Square.

But for her and other female Saudi football fans, the sport has come to symbolize far more than just winning.

“As a teenager and a kid, I used to be a huge football fan,” said the 35-year-old, at the World Cup with her two daughters and niece, as well as her husband and brother-in-law.

“It was one of my dreams to attend a game in a stadium. For my kids, my daughters to have the opportunity to do that, it’s amazing.”

A ban on women attending soccer matches in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom was lifted in January as part of a wider relaxation of social restrictions championed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Zaki said she had been to five matches in Saudi Arabia since then and that the Russia match was her first abroad.

In the build-up to the match on Thursday, small parties of Saudi women marched through the crowds towards Luzhniki stadium.

“It’s a big step in our country,” Hajar Al-Murais, a 28-year-old ophthalmologist and FC Barcelona supporter, said of her new found freedom to attend football matches at home, her taupe head scarf and long lilac dress standing out from the massed football shirts around her.

In March, Prince Salman suggested that women did not need to wear headdresses or the black abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety, as long as their attire was “decent and respectful”.

Women in the kingdom are still required to don the abaya for now however and must receive approval from male guardians for basic decisions about marriage and travel.

But like many Saudi women who travel abroad, those in Moscow mostly wore jeans, and sunglasses. Some had green and white streaks painted on their cheeks. Few covered their heads.

“Some people ... they don’t want to see Saudi Arabia open up and become accepting,” said Mona Abdallah, a 54-year-old kindergarten teacher from Riyadh who had traveled to Russia with her husband and two children.

“They’re just going to have to get used to it,” said Mounira Al-Naimi, a 24-year-old human resources specialist. “Because it’s happening.”

Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Ahmad Al-Katib; Editing by Andrew Heavens