Women in black abayas and fluorescent vests stood at the gates of King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah, welcoming families including women into the family section of the stadium. Last Friday was a historic day for Saudi Arabia as women won the right to enter and watch men playing football in stadiums.
While the game between two Arabian football teams, al-Ahli and al-Batin at Jeddah was interesting in itself, it will always be remembered as a monumental occasion of being the first match in the history of Saudi Arabia when women were allowed in the audience stands. This move came as the part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s bid to ‘modernise’ the country. On Friday, King Abdullah Stadium, the largest football stadium in Jeddah with a maximum capacity of over 62,000 was flocked with football fan ladies adorned in black abayas with their families to enjoy the match and be a part of the historic day. The women watchers were segregated in the ‘family-sections’ at the stadium, specially arranged by order from the Saudi General Sports Authority.
Facilities including air-conditioned prayer rooms, concession stands, restrooms, and even designated play areas for children were arranged in the stadium; and certainly, everything was managed by female staff members. There was a cheerful sense of emotion in the stadium as women felt empowered by taking part in the buzzing atmosphere that a football match brings. The decision to allow women in the stadium and let mixed public be the part of the audience of a sport event is a proof that the country which is the most conservative kingdom, is eventually turning into a progressive society.
Still only 13% of the audience at King Abdullah Stadium on Friday were women, which is comparatively very low. However, the sport authorities are aiming to raise the percentage to as many as 40% by 2030 – this was just a starter. The match concluded with Al-Ahli crushing Al-Batin 5-0, but the real winners were the women in the stands. Large number of women showed up proudly, were enthusiastic in their support, and were thoroughly entertained.