RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time Friday to watch a soccer match between two local teams — though they were segregated in the stands from the male-only crowd with designated seating in the so-called “family section.”
The move was the first of Saudi Arabia’s social reforms planned for this year to ease restrictions on women, spearheaded by the kingdom’s 32-year-old crown prince.
The kingdom has also announced that starting in June women will be allowed to drive, lifting the world’s only ban on female drivers.
More than just an incremental step toward greater rights, the presence of women in the sports stadium underscored a wider effort to integrate women in society and grant them more public visibility in a country where gender segregation is widely enforced and where most women cover their faces and hair with black veils and don loose-flowing black robes, known as abayas.
The first stadium to open its doors to women was in the Red Sea city of Jiddah. The stadium in the capital, Riyadh, will open to women on Saturday, followed by the western city of Dammam on Thursday.
At the Jiddah stadium Friday, young Saudi women wearing bright orange vests over their abayas were deployed to help with the female crowds. “Welcome to Saudi families,” read a sign in Arabic erected across the section of the stadium reserved for women.
“It’s very festive and very well organized. A lot of people are just really happy to be here. I think there’s a lot of excitement when you walked in, especially among the children,” said Sarah Swick of the match between Saudi soccer teams Al-Ahli and Al-Batin.
To prepare for the change, the kingdom designated so-called “family sections” in the stands for women, separated by barriers from the male-only crowds.
The stadiums were also fitted with female prayer areas and restrooms, as well as separate entrances and parking lots for female spectators.
Local media said women would also have their own designated smoking areas.
An Arabic hashtag on Twitter about women entering stadiums garnered tens of thousands of tweets on Friday, with some using the hashtag to share photos of female spectators wearing their team’s colors in scarves thrown over their black abayas.
While many welcomed the decision to allow women into stadiums, others spoke out against it.
Some used the hashtag to write that women’s place should be in the home, focusing on their children and preserving their faith, and not at a stadium where male crowds frequently curse and chant raucously.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen as the driving force behind the loosened restrictions on women. Still in place, however, are guardianship laws that prevent women from traveling abroad, obtaining a passport or marrying without a male relative’s consent.