RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabian girls will be allowed to play sports in private schools for the first time, according to a decision announced this weekend, the latest in a series of incremental changes aimed at slowly increasing women's rights in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Saudi Arabia's official press agency, SPA, reported that private girls' schools are now allowed to hold sports activities in accordance with the rules of Shariah, or Islamic law. Students must adhere to "decent dress" codes, and Saudi women teachers will be given priority in supervising the activities, according to the Education Ministry's requirements.
The decision makes sports once again a stage for the push to improve women's rights, nearly a year after two Saudi female athletes made an unprecedented appearance at the Olympics.
Education Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Dakhini was quoted in SPA saying that the decision to allow girls to play sports in private schools "stems from the teachings of our religion, which allow women such activities in accordance with Shariah."
The government had previously quietly tolerated physical education in some private schools, but there is no set curriculum.
The Saudi government plays a role in private schools, providing textbooks and directors.
Sports for women in Saudi Arabia have been largely a pastime of elites who can afford expensive health club memberships. They are often attached to hospitals since women's gyms were closed in 2010 on grounds they were unlicensed.
Saudi Arabia allowed two female athletes to compete in last summer's Olympics only after the International Olympics Committee had put intense pressure on the kingdom to end its practice of sending only male teams to the games.
Their participation was not shown on Saudi TV stations.
Women's sports remain nearly an underground activity in the kingdom, which is home to Islam's holiest site in Mecca.