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Saudi Arabian Girls' School Defies Religious Ban With Sports

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Members of the first Saudi women's basketball team Jeddah United train in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on May 7, 2009. In red-and-white uniforms which cover all but their hands and face, Saudi women pioneers with their basketballs and footballs are puncturing strict religious taboos. Jeddah United train four times a week away from the prying eyes of men. (Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the first Saudi women's basketball team Jeddah United train in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on May 7, 2009. In red-and-white uniforms which cover all but their hands and face, Saudi women pioneers with their basketballs and footballs are puncturing strict religious taboos. Jeddah United train four times a week away from the prying eyes of men. (Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images)

Flouting a religious ban on female sports, a school in Saudi Arabia has become the first state-run girls' school in the country to openly allow their students to play sports, Reuters reports.

Female participation in sports has long been a controversial issue in the conservative Islamic kingdom, where an austere interpretation of Islamic law not only prevents women from playing sports but also requires a male guardian's consent for a host of activities like marriage, divorce and travel. Driving is also frowned upon.

In 2009, Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, a powerful cleric and advisor to the royal court, said that the excessive movement needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity.

In defiance of this religious ban, a school in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has erected basketball hoops, allowing their female students to play during weekly "activity classes," Reuters reports.

Private girls' schools in Saudi Arabia already offer sports classes, but the state-run school -- which has not been named -- is the first of its kind to openly promote sports among girls.

Forbes reports that this small step may be a sign that international pressure on Saudi Arabia's retrograde attitude on women is working.

In February, Human Rights Watch called for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the 2012 Olympics for having never fielded a female athlete, The New York Times reports.

Last month, in a landmark move, Saudi Arabia set up a ministerial committee to consider allowing women's sports clubs. Saudi Arabia's only female deputy minister, Noura al-Fayez, also wrote to Human Rights Watch saying there is a plan to introduce physical education at girls' state schools.

"I hope that when they see that there are girls who really want to play, and who do play regardless of the obstacles that lie in their path, they realize that they have to do something," 24-year-old Nour Fitiany, a female basketball player for Jeddah United, told Reuters.

Founded in 2003, Jeddah United, under the aegis of the privately-run Jeddah United Sports Company, is Saudi Arabia's first women's basketball team.

Reuters reports that when the Jeddah United squad returned from a 2009 tournament in which they played the Jordanian national team, a local newspaper published their photograph under the headline: "Shameless girls".

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Saudi Arabian women are not allowed to work or have bank accounts. However, it appears that they are allowed to work in certain institutions and undertake financial transactions, but may often need the permission of a male guardian to do so.

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