DUBAI: It wasn’t too long ago that Saudi women were barred from entering sports stadiums, let alone taking part in sport.
Saja Kamal recalls that as a 12-year-old she had to disguise herself as a boy in order to watch her football idol play in her hometown.
“My favorite Saudi player, Yaser Al-Qahtani, was playing in Dammam, and I desperately wanted to watch the game,” she says. “My father snuck me into the stadium after putting my hair up in a bun under my cap and dressing me in baggy clothes.”
With her parents’ support, Kamal has realized her dream of becoming a footballer. Now 29, she is an advocate of women’s participation in sport in Saudi Arabia. The new reforms in the Kingdom are certainly encouraging.
While Kamal was fortunate enough to grow up in a liberal household, her parents paid a price for allowing her to practice football.
“My story started in Saudi Arabia when I was four. My dad registered me with the Saudi Aramco Soccer Association on a private compound in Eastern Province.
“Women in Saudi Arabia don’t play football, especially not in public,” she said. “As a young footballer, I was the only Saudi girl who was involved in the sport until I graduated from high school. My father was the only local who enrolled his daughter to play.”
His decision did not find favor with other Saudi men. Growing up in a culture where young girls were not encouraged to play sports was a trying experience for Kamal, who had to fight to achieve her goals.
“Not being allowed to practice football at school or university, or in public, and not being able to access stadiums or join a gym, just didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t going to just sit there and take it.
“My passion was football and I wanted to practice it, and I did,” she said.
With no football teams on school grounds, Kamal practiced in a camp in her free time. She improved rapidly and was selected to represent Saudi Arabia abroad in youth tournaments, including the Schwan’s USA Cup in Minnesota.
“Playing internationally helped me meet some of my idols and other top players from around the world,” she said. “However, despite representing Saudi Arabia in over six countries and playing for more than 12 years, we were never officially an actual national team.”
When it was time for Kamal and her sister to go to high school, her father sent both to Bahrain. That allowed Kamal to join the Arsenal Soccer School and became a right-forward.
“We had to commute two hours daily to attend high school in another country,” she said. “But as a result, I received a strong education in English and graduated from high school as a full international baccalaureate student, thus skipping the foundation year of university, before flying to Boston to obtain my bachelor’s, master’s and PMP (Project Management Professional) qualification simultaneously.”
Kamal’s studies didn’t stop her love for the sport. She played for Northeastern University’s women’s team while in college before moving back to Saudi Arabia to coach the women’s team at Al-Fursan Football Club.
At present, she is based in Dubai, where she works as a senior government consultant and coaches women’s teams in her spare time.
Kamal recently joined Equal Playing Field, an NGO focused on encouraging women to take part in sports. Together with 30 other football pros she broke the world record for playing the highest-altitude football match in history, on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. A few months later, the group set a new record for the lowest-altitude game, near the Dead Sea in Jordan.
“Casually entering the same stadiums I snuck into as a kid inspired me to push forward and build an official Saudi national women’s team,” she said.
“Joining Equal Playing Field was driven by those changes and resulted in my determination to break the Guinness World Records.”
• This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.