By Nick Butler

Sarah Attar was one of two Saudi Arabian women to compete at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and thus set a trend for women to compete in sport ©AFP/Getty ImagesApril 13 - A landmark first step in allowing girls in Saudi Arabian state schools to take part in sport has been welcomed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the first of many such reforms.

Following a ban on female sports participation in private schools being lifted last year, the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom's consultative Shura Council voted overwhelmingly, by 92 votes to 18, in favour of extending this to state schools as well. 

It has been hailed as a hugely significant step in a country where women must be veiled from head to toe when in public and are still forbidden to work, drive, or travel without the authorisation of their male guardians.

The participation of women in sport has become a very sensitive issue in recent months and has been identified as an area in which reforms can be made. 

After huge international pressure, judoka Wojdan Shaherkani and 800 metres runner Sarah Attar thus became the first female athletes from the nation to compete in an Olympics at London 2012.

Two years earlier, Dalma Rushdi Malhas had also competed in equestrian at the Singapore 2010 Summer Youth Olympics, winning a bronze medal. 

The Council is only an advisory body, so for the bill to come into place for sport in schools the Ministry of Education must draft and present regulations, and these must be approved by both the Shura Council and the Cabinet.

But the significance was not missed by the IOC, with communications director Mark Adams claiming they "welcomed this development and looks forward to approval by the Education Ministry".

The announcement follows a visit to Saudi Arabia by IOC President Thomas Bach earlier this month ©Saudi Arabian Olympic CommitteeThe announcement follows a visit to Saudi Arabia by IOC President Thomas Bach earlier this month ©Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee

Adams also noted that  IOC president Thomas Bach had raised women's involvement in sport when he visited Saudi Arabia as part of a whistle-stop Gulf tour earlier this month.

"On the IOC President's visit to Saudi Arabia the National Olympic Committee outlined plans to increase women's participation in sport in the kingdom at a university level, which we fully support," Adams said.

"And following participation by female athletes from Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games in London and the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this would be a further step towards full participation by girls and women at all levels of sport in the country."

Although they made it clear that Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go in improving the treatment of women, the move was also welcomed by Human Rights Watch as they expressed their hope that it could be the first of many reforms. 

"The Shura Council vote shows that the Saudi government can buck the conservative establishment and take steps to end discriminatory practices against women when it wants to," said the Non-Governmental Organisation's Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson.

"It's a good sign that Saudi authorities appear to realise letting all girls in Saudi Arabia play sports is important to their physical and mental well-being.

"Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to end discriminatory practices against women, but allowing girls to play sports in Government schools would move the ball down the field in ways that could have a major long-term impact." 

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