In 2011, the Iranian women’s national team was reduced to tears after being forbidden from playing Jordan in a qualifying Olympic match due to its members’ headscarves. FIFA had barred players from wearing what it saw as dangerous equipment during games, and the Iranians’ hijabs fell under the rule. When the federation lifted the headscarf ban in 2014, Muslim footballers around the world rejoiced, except in Saudi Arabia where a FIFA-recognized female team is illegal, anyway.
“We don’t have clubs; we don’t have trainers. Here I can’t go and play publicly,” explains Rawh Abdullah, captain of the aptly named Challenge, one of Saudi Arabia’s few clandestine female soccer teams. In the Gulf state, women are banned from playing sports in public, and there are no female athletic programs in schools. “Football … requires a lot of movement and jumping,” Sheikh Abdullah al-Manea of the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars was reported to have said in 2009. “It might cause girls to tear their hymens.”
Challenge players train several times a week in secret locations in Riyadh, occasionally playing other women’s teams around the country. They wear hijabs and tracksuits and train in the smallest men’s cleats they can find as women’s athletic equipment is scarce. Officials continue to routinely refuse approval for women’s sporting events, but more Saudi women may soon be forced to follow the Challenge example: hymens intact or not, today almost one in two is obese.