The Loneliest Al-Shabab Supporter

On Friday, December 12 in the top-flight Saudi Professional League, Riyadh’s Al-Shabab picked up a 1-0 away win over Jeddah’s Al-Ittihad. Midfielder Abdulmagid Al-Sulaihem scored the game’s only goal in the fifth minute of 2nd-half stoppage time. One round of matches later and just about halfway through the season, Al-Shabab, as of this writing, sits third in the 14-team league table, which if the season ended today would earn them entry into the AFC Champions League. Al-Ittihad sits three points behind Al-Shabab in fifth.

This is not the important bit about the match. It’s just my personal policy to never let the result of a key match in a given story go unmentioned. I hate when people mention a game where something happened and then don’t say who won the darned thing. So there it is, right upfront.

The important part of the match happened in the stands. What happened was that a woman bought a ticket online and attended the game. She was then ejected for being a woman who attended a soccer game.

There’s a video of the affair, but really, the photo viewable here will suffice. What you see is a woman in the Al-Shabab supporters section a pretty heavily male disguise- a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt, pants, all in the black and white colors of Al-Shabab. This qualifies as a male disguise because women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear an abaya- the loose-fitting black dress- in public, and most wear a niqab as well (the face-covering veil). Obviously, it didn’t work; someone in the stands got suspicious and ratted her out. And, given when the only goal of the game happened, that means she missed seeing her team win in the dying moments of the match.

In fact, there are a lot of restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. There’s a debate going as to whether to allow women to drive a car (during daylight hours, with the consent of a male relative, after their 30th birthday, with a man in the car when outside of the city, while conservatively dressed, and for the love of all that’s holy no makeup). Women can’t leave the house without a male chaperone; they can’t try on clothes at the store in a changing room (they end up having to use the toilet); there’s no physical education for girls in public schools. In the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea back in October, Saudi Arabia was the only one of the 45 competing nations not to put women on their team. Women are making a concerted push for civil rights, in some cases exploiting the custom of separating the genders in public to create women-only schools and businesses, and however slowly, that is the direction things are going. But there is a hellaciously long way to go, and change comes at a glacially slow pace.

Which is how you get to circumstances such as what happened in Jeddah. Separation of the genders in public means a soccer match between male teams has been a male-only space until 2013, when women were first permitted to attend sporting events, with stadiums newly built to receive women-only sections. Back in 2012, there was rumored to be a method in the works at the very stadium where this happened, the opened-in-May King Abdullah Sports City, and at least as far as VICE is concerned when they reported on the stadium’s opening ceremony, they followed through. But even VICE was still talking in the future tense, referring to it as something still yet to happen, and I haven’t seen their confirmation corroborated anywhere else or anyone make note of the balconies actually being in place. The fact that the fan noted that she was able to buy a ticket tells me that the issue here still lies in her mere attendance and not in the location of her seat.

The woman has since been released after making bail and signing a statement apologizing and promising not to do it again. She also reasserted that she is, in fact, a fan of Al-Shabab.

Let’s repeat that. A woman was arrested, spent about a week and a half in jail, paid bail, was made to apologize and promise not to repeat her actions of… attending a soccer game. As a matter of perspective, I write this from a country where the current largest issue regarding women and soccer is that the national team dropped out of the #1 ranking for the first time since 2008.

Saudi Arabia does not have a women’s national team at all.

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