Saudi Arabia hosts first women's wrestling match

If the Wahhabi kingdom relies on sport to try to improve its image, it took intense negotiations for this fight to emerge.

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One of the editions of the WWE Crown Jewel in Riyadh, November 2, 2018. FAY NURELDINE / AFP

"I am ecstatic, I am delighted. " By the admission of Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, one of the leaders of the largest wrestling federation in the United States (World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE), "There are so many different adjectives" to qualify what she feels. For the first time, Thursday, October 31, Saudi Arabia hosts a women's match. Canada's Natalie Katherine Neidhart, known as "Natalya", and American Lacey Evans compete in Riyadh as part of the "Crown Jewel", one of the largest pay-per-view events (pay -per-view) of this sport-entertainment.

Wrestling is very popular in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, where the stars have many fans. In 2018, the North American Federation has signed with the kingdom a very juicy ten-year partnership, providing for the holding of events every year in the country. In October, after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and revelations of Riyadh's role in his disappearance, many media and public figures had denounced this agreement virulently. Despite their protests, the gala planned for the following month had been maintained. And a year later, the time having done its work, "The controversy is less intense", Sport Illustrated note.

Combat wrestlers in full combination

In recent years, the ultra-conservative realm has relied on sports to try to modernize its image. It still took long negotiations behind the scenes with senior Saudi officials for Thursday's historic fight to take place. Especially since the first WWE Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia was close to the diplomatic incident. Involved: the dissemination of exclusively male fights, a promotional video in which appeared wrestlers in light combat suits. What cause stir in the stadium of Jeddah, but especially the ire of the general authority of sports of Saudi Arabia, who had apologized for these images "Indecent". The instance had in the wake "To prohibit the projection of any segment of the female wrestling or any scene related to it".

The absence of female fighters in previous events in the country has been widely criticized by Western fans. After years of unequal treatment, WWE is giving its female wrestlers a bigger place, to the point of scheduling a closing women's wrestling match at WrestleMania, the American wrestling mass at Bercy in May. "You can not ignore the girl, the mother, the grandmother in your audience, they also need heroines to identify with, who are as interesting and captivating as men", explained in May Philippe Chereau, wrestling commentator on AB1, daily 20 minutes.

Thursday will be opposing in the ring a wrestler who in the kayfabe – to understand the scenario related to her character – cheats on her husband and another whose finishing touch – the one that usually allows her to win – is called "Women's Right". But the Canadian Natalya and the American Lacey Evans have been mostly retained by the federation for a reason other than their apparent modernity, according to a WWE executive questioned by The Wrap : the two women, white and Anglo-Saxon, "Can fight without risk of cultural retaliation".

Like Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss, the first female wrestlers to compete in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, in 2017, the two women will be equipped with full suits, out of respect for the culture and traditions of the host country.

Cosmetic reforms

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has begun to open gradually to women's sport. In February 2016, women were first allowed to take licenses at gym clubs across the country. In July, the Ministry of Education decided to introduce school sport for girls. Since the 1st In January 2018, Saudi women may also attend, in reserved sections, certain sports events in three venues in Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh.

These decisions are part of the "Vision 2030" development plan carried out by Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, one of whose aims is to erase the kingdom's image of ultra-conservatism. But these reforms are only cosmetic, denounce many human rights activists, the Saudis are still not emancipated from male guardianship. Thursday, like a year ago, women will for example be accepted in the stands to attend the match if they are accompanied by a man.

Authorize a women's fight is a real breakthrough, recognizes Sports Illustrated, But "That does not change the fact that Saudi women have extremely limited rights".


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