Sarah Al-Gashgari, an 18-year-old first-year university student from Jeddah, on the west coast of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea, with aspirations of a career in the medical industry, has been a football fan for as long as she can remember, but was never afforded the opportunity to actually attend a match and watch her favourite team, Al Ahli, from inside the walls of the stadium.

Football was the domain of men, and men alone. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, that is how life was for women, young and old, and according to Al-Gashgari, she never knew any different.

“I felt what I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me,” she told Football Today.

“I never really felt I was missing out on something because no one would really talk about it. Me and my brothers would watch matches on the TV and that was it, it was only when my brothers grew up and started going to the stadium I felt left out.”

But that all changed last month when, for the first time, Saudi Arabia allowed women to attend football matches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman.

Al-Gashgari remembers well the moment the announcement was made.

“It was a surreal moment knowing that women will go to the stadium to witness something they have always watched behind a screen,” she said.

“It was also a very exciting time because it came shortly after the lifting of the ban of women driving, so it really felt like Saudi was stepping in the right direction towards enhancing the roles of women in our society.

“Saudi is facing monumental changes in all aspects, and I feel at this rate of progress and development the future appears to be bright and promising.”

So when the call went out at King Abdulaziz University, where Al-Gashgari completes her studies, for young women to volunteer to act as ushers and assistants for women and families attending the match between Al Ahli and Al Batin at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, she had no hesitation putting her name forward.

“The organizing team advertised they needed organisers for the first ever match and I was filled with excitement for not only will I be able to attend this historical moment, but also be part of its success,” she said.

“As an all women team organising for the first ever soccer match I could tell you nothing could be more empowering. It felt amazing being in the stadium seeing all the fans and the team excelling in their performance.”

The response was overwhelming, with almost 24,000 turning out for the historic occasion. It was Al Ahli’s biggest crowd of the season, even eclipsing the 21,358 that turned out for the derby against fierce local rivals Al Ittihad.

With Al Ahli winning 5-0 on the night, did the experience of her first live match live up to her expectations?

“(It was) everything I imagined, if not more,” she said. “I am thankful to have been part of this experience, it was amazing.”

As with any significant social change, there have been detractors, with some in Saudi Arabia opposed to the move, although according to Al-Gashgari they are in the minority and on the wrong side if history. From her experience in attending matches, everyone has been supportive of the change.

“Honestly everyone who came was supportive and came to have a good time,” she said.

“I can tell you that the majority of the Saudi society supports this law and whoever doesn’t doesn’t really have to because the promising future shows they won’t affect our development.”

After the historic match last month Al-Gashgari enjoyed a short vacation, but has returned to Jeddah and continues to attend matches and support Al Ahli, who are fighting with Al Hilal for top spot in the Saudi Pro League.

She was one of almost 46,000 in attendance for their most recent match against Al Ittihad, a match that ended 0-0 and saw the debut of Socceroos star Mark Milligan.

The hype and media attention may have died down over the last month, but the number of women and children attending the stadiums is only continuing to grow, with the sight of young girls, faces painted and decked out in the colours of their favourite team, providing a window into the future of Saudi Arabian football, and society as a whole.

Categories: People | Asia

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