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JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia - As the NBA season kicks off in America this week, a group of Saudi women and girls will be pursuing their own hoop dreams. Women's basketball is gaining in popularity in a kingdom rife with public restrictions on female movement and activity. With the help of some U.S.-trained coaches, female enthusiasts are using basketball to push for greater rights for women on and off the courts in Saudi Arabia.
"We are an activist team," said Lina Almaeena, who started the first women's basketball team here 11 years ago. That led to the creation of Jiddah United in 2006, the first sports club in Saudi Arabia to include women. "We took it upon ourselves to really promote the sport at a time when it was a big time taboo." For the players, basketball is not merely a sport but an act of defiance in a country where female access to exercise is outright shunned by ultraconservatives; physical education is still not on the curriculum for girls in Saudi public schools.
Women are bound by strict rules when it comes to their attire, so they cannot be seen by men while jogging in sweat pants, much less wearing fitted or revealing shorts. Nevertheless, Saudi women's basketball is on the rise, and women from the ultraconservative kingdom are even playing in other Arab countries. Hadeer Sadagah, 20, started playing eight years ago with Almaeena at Jiddah United. She now plays at the collegiate level for the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. "I wouldn't be the person I am today without the sport," she said. "It made me be more active in society, school and in studies. It made me more social. It made me confident."