30/10/2017 10:56 PM IST

Saudi Women Allowed Inside Sports Stadiums In Small Advance For Women’s Rights

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to allow women to enter sports stadiums starting next year, in the latest incremental advance for women’s rights in the conservative Muslim country.

Starting in 2018, women will be allowed to attend sporting events at three major stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, the Saudi General Sports Authority announced. However, female spectators will likely be relegated to a “family” section that’s separate from male-only seating areas, The Associated Press reports.

Women were allowed to enter the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh for the first time last month, for a one-off event celebrating the anniversary of the country’s founding, reports Reuters. They entered the stadium through a separate gate.

“It is the first time I have come to the stadium and I feel like more of a Saudi citizen,” 25-year-old Sultana, who did not provide her last name, told Reuters at the event. “God willing, tomorrow women will be permitted bigger and better things like driving and travel.”

Shortly after the anniversary event, the kingdom announced plans to lift its ban on female drivers, effective next June.

“I’m just trying to hold back the tears,” 26-year-old Sara Althari told HuffPost last month after the announcement. “It’s been a long time coming. ... I’m full of hope and optimism and joy and very proud today to be a Saudi woman.”

Women commemorate the anniversary of Saudi Arabia's founding at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on Sept. 23, 2017. Strict rules on public segregation of the sexes have effectively barred women in Saudi Arabia from entering sports arenas.

Under Saudi law, women still cannot mix freely with men, obtain a passport or leave the country without a male guardian’s permission. They also have to wear an abaya that covers their bodies down to their feet, among other rules.

Prince Muhammed bin Salman has recently pushed to modernize Saudi Arabia and improve its image abroad, reports HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed.

Last week, critics of the country’s policies toward women expressed outrage after a robot named Sophia was granted Saudi citizenship, which awarded it more rights than women currently have, they said.

“Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam?” Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told Newsweek of the robot. “What is the religion of this Sophia and why isn’t she wearing hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human she wouldn’t get it.”