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Saudi Arabia to Offer Physical Education Classes for Girls

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Does Islam allow girls to play tag? What about soccer?

Such questions have suddenly become points of public policy in Saudi Arabia as public schools in the ultraconservative kingdom prepare, for the first time in their history, to offer physical education for girls.

The Saudi education ministry said on Tuesday that P.E. for girls would start with the coming academic year, marking a slight loosening of the rules in a country that has long had one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women.

The announcement did not detail what activities would be offered, but said they would be introduced gradually and “in accordance with the rules of sharia,” or Islamic law.

Because of the kingdom’s desert traditions and strict interpretation of Islam, women in Saudi Arabia must cover their hair and bodies in public, and are barred from driving and from traveling abroad and undergoing some medical treatments without the permission of a male guardian — usually a father, husband or even a son.

That means no driver’s education for female students.

Those strictures have also applied to women’s sports, which conservatives have opposed for a number of reasons. Some oppose sportswear for women, fearing they will get used to wearing it and lose their modesty. Others have argued that sports go against women’s “nature” or cause them to develop muscles that make them look like men.

“The whole thing is about the idea of protecting a woman’s femininity,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi academic who studies women’s history. She and other women’s rights campaigners praised the decision for offering new possibilities to the kingdom’s girls.

“This decision is important, especially for public schools,” Ms. Fassi said. “It is essential that girls around the kingdom have the opportunity to build their bodies, to care for their bodies and to respect their bodies.”

The progress toward P.E. for girls has been slow in a country where the opening of the first girls’ schools a half century ago spurred protests.

Schools remain segregated by gender. Recent decades have seen a boom in university attendance as all-female faculties have popped up across the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia first formally allowed sports for girls in private schools four years ago, although girls whose families permitted it have worked out and played sports in private settings.

In 2012, the kingdom included two female athletes in its delegation to the Olympic Games in London after the International Olympic Committee suggested the country could be barred from participating if it sent only men. In 2016, it sent four women to Rio de Janeiro, and a princess, Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, was named a vice president of the General Sports Authority, giving sportswomen a high-profile advocate.

The education ministry said the decision to offer gym for girls was part of Saudi Vision 2030, a plan for the kingdom’s future laid out last year by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The plan, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy and make life in the kingdom more enjoyable for citizens, calls for getting 40 percent of Saudis to exercise at least once per week. The current figure, the plan says, is 13 percent.

But the kingdom still faces challenges in establishing physical education classes across its large network of public schools. Saudi universities do not train female gym teachers, and most girls’ schools lack sports facilities.

“It is very hard because you are starting something from scratch,” Ms. Fassi said.

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