Women’s sport in Saudi Arabia. Given the misogynistic traditions of Saudi society, enshrined by repressive laws, this must surely be the most truncated chapter in the story of the world.
But it does have two curious entries.
The first is the apparent popularity within Saudi Arabia, of American-style women’s professional wrestling. What is the basis for its appeal? I don’t rightly know. It must surely be different from the perspectives of the two distinct audiences in the Saudi television-watching and event-going demographic. For women, perhaps it’s the sight of powerful women doing anything on their own; for the men, it probably is mere titillation.
Pro wrestling among male contestants came to Saudi Arabia in 2014. By 2017, Saudi women were allowed to be at events as spectators – but only if accompanied by a male guardian.
And in 2019, the first women’s bout, between Natalya and Alexa Bliss was scheduled, but withdrawn at the last minute as a bridge too far. This was corrected in October when a match between Natalya and Lacey Evans did take place at the Saudi Crown Jewel event. This was a first for that benighted kingdom.
The women’s usual garish wrestling outfits – leather-studded bikinis, leopard print sequinned catsuits and the like – had to be toned down for the Saudi event. They both wore T shirts and long leggings.
Both Natalya and Lacey Evans are regulars on the American women’s pro wrestling circuit. Natalya is said to be the first ever third-generation female professional wrestler, and is part of a partnership aptly named the Divas of Doom. Lacey Evans, real name Macey Estrella-Kadlec, was raised in tough times by non-functional parents. She joined the marines, where she was introduced to wrestling, and later ran a construction company. She became a pro wrestler in 2014, and won a women’s Heavyweight title along the way.
At the fight in Saudi Arabia, she lost to Natalya, but the two women embraced afterwards to seal the historic moment. This was in defiance to ‘kayfabe’, the arcane pro wrestling convention of etiquette of making at all seem real when it’s not, really.
Anyway, they went down a treat in Saudi Arabia. Since then, Bayley and Naomi have also fought in well-publicised events in that Arab nation. Put that in your odder-oddities file in your trivia banks.
And now, just last week it was announced in Saudi Arabia that the nation will allow and invest in a female soccer league. The first women’s soccer club was founded in Jedda in 2006, but had to train in secret and away from the sight of men. There was no one else to play, either. In 2008, the government expressly banned the formation of a FIFA-associated national women’s team.
In 2011, people in the country were saying, cautiously, that women’s soccer would be a way to combat growing obesity rates. Some schools experimented with giving girls the option of sport.
In 2015, women playing sport themselves were denounced by prominent clerics as “steps of the devil.” In 2018, women were permitted to enter stadiums and watch men play.
But, there’s no denying a vital human interest. Things things slowly grew, and by now there are ten women’s soccer teams in Saudi Arabia.
The proposed new women’s soccer league will play in the capital Riyadh and two other cities. The league comes about as the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is responsible for some of the reforms in recent years of this ultra-strict society. Just last year, he first allowed Saudi women to travel overseas without a male guardian, and stopped segregation in restaurants. But hey, they’ve still got a long way to go.
Maybe women’s soccer will go some way to helping women’s rights in that cruel country. But I wonder at the symbolism and effect of women’s pro wrestling as a cultural import. How much can a charade change reality on the ground? I’d say soccer has a better chance.
But whatever the repercussions of the wrestlers’ efforts, I wish the women in Saudi Arabia chasing the round ball, playing the beautiful game, and those watching those chasing, all the best of luck in their campaign for emancipation.