Last Thursday saw a historic moment that quickly became a sensational spectacle in Saudi Arabia and beyond: the first women’s wrestling match, attended by hundreds of Saudi men and women, complete with oversized t-shirts worn on top of the regular full-body leotards of the female wrestlers in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
The match was announced on Wednesday by WWE as part of ‘Crown Jewel’– a pay-per-view broadcasted WWE event – and was the fourth match held in Saudi Arabia since they signed a 10-year partnership in support of Saudi Vision 2030.
The Saudi Vision 2030 involves a number of reforms that aim to modernise Saudi Arabia’s economy, lessen dependence on oil, and develop public sectors including health, education, infrastructure and tourism.
Since its announcement, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has made many reforms targeting women’s rights, including allowing them the right to travel and drive, as well as working towards relative equality with men in the labour sector.
However, these reforms, as well as many ‘small’ strides similar to this match, for instance, and allowing female teachers to teach boys in public schools, have been criticised as ‘cosmetic reforms’ that avert the public eye from more serious issues facing women in the country, including most notably the female activists imprisoned on counts of involvement with foreign governments among several other vague convictions.
The match, however, was still attended by many Saudi women who reacted emotionally to meeting the two female wrestlers, Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans. Their wrestling outfits were explained by WWE’s Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon as a desire "to be respectful of the culture.”
However, many have opposed this decision, arguing that it only falls into the same oppressive system that Saudi Arabia is now meant to be ‘reforming’, where women’s bodies are policed by men.
The WWE should be commended for making history in Saudi Arabia (where two women wrestled for the first time), but there's something tragic and painfully authoritarian about forcing them to wrestle in lame outfits that were approved by tacky & misogynistic Saudi men. #CrownJewel pic.twitter.com/dLKc5Op4bO— Art Tavana 🌼🔪 (@arttavana) October 31, 2019
This wasn't the first time a WWE show in Saudi Arabia caused controversy, though. Back in 2018, during the first WWE event to be held in the country, the Greatest Royal Rumble, WWE aired a promotional video which included female wrestlers in their regular ring gear. Shortly after, the Saudi General Sports Authority issued a statement committing to the ban of any such promotional videos (and the appearance of women wrestling in general) in the future.
Part of the statement reads: "The authority has made sure to ban showing of any segment that involves women wrestling or any scenes related to it, and stipulated that to the company (WWE). The authority also disapproved any promotional stuff with pictures or videos showing women in an indecent way, and emphasized on commitment of this rule. And it’s a commitment that the authority would still commit to forever in all of its events and programs."
Indeed, in June's WWE Super ShowDown event of this year, the Saudi government rejected the proposal of adding a women's match to the card. This decision was later countered with the Crown Jewel.
In spite of the controversy, both Neidhart and Evans have only expressed gratitude and joy over wrestling in Saudi, commenting that it is “historic” and that they are proud to be part of that moment.
I couldn’t stop smiling when this was announced. When I speak about women driving, or even just sharing space with men, these are rights that didn’t exist when I was growing up. I understand why it doesn’t impress a lot of people, but it means the world to me and so many others. https://t.co/4Zy7N2QOBP— Mansoor (منصور الشهيل) (@KSAMANNY) October 30, 2019
Mansoor Al-Shehail, WWE’s first Saudi wrestler, also tweeted in celebration of the match.