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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi public schools will begin offering physical education for girls in the coming academic year, the kingdom's education ministry announced on Tuesday, a long-awaited step toward social reform in the Islamic kingdom.
Physical education for women is controversial in Saudi Arabia, where conservatives consider it immodest, and it is not mandatory. It is not offered in most public schools, although some private schools include it in the curriculum.
Saudi Arabia adheres to strict interpretations of Islamic law and tribal custom, requiring women to have male guardians throughout their lives and obey a modest dress code. Women are barred from driving.
However, the Saudi government has in recent years begun introducing gradual reforms to open new opportunities for women and expand their participation in the labour force.
The advisory Shura Council approved the introduction of physical education for girls in 2014, although the decision was never implemented as it faced pushback from clerics who decried it as "Westernisation."
Earlier this year, the council opened the door to licensing for women's gyms, which were previously in legal limbo.
Saudi Arabia struggles with high rates of obesity, which place pressure on its health system. The kingdom's Vision 2030 reform plan is seeking to address the issue by introducing more sports and leisure activities.
(Reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Janet Lawrence)