RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is to license women's sports clubs for the first time, al-Watan daily reported, in a major step for an ultra-religious country where clerics have warned against female exercise.
Last year the conservative Islamic kingdom, where women must have permission from a male relative to take many big decisions, sent women athletes to the Olympics for the first time after pressure from international rights groups.
Until now, women's exercise facilities, including gyms, have had to be licensed by the Health Ministry and designated as "health centres".
Last April Watan, owned by a Saudi prince, reported the government had set up a ministerial committee to allow women's sports clubs. The General Presidency of Youth Welfare, which functions like a sports ministry, only regulates men's clubs.
In 2009 a member of the country's highest council of clerics said girls should not play sports lest they "lose their virginity" by tearing their hymens. State-run girls' schools do not have exercise classes.
Watan said on Friday the Interior Ministry had decided to allow women's sports clubs after reviewing a study that showed flaws in the existing system.
In August two Saudi women, a judoka and a sprinter, became the first to compete for their country in the Olympics. At least one had trained abroad.
Saudi women are barred from driving and must seek the permission of a male "guardian", usually a father, husband or brother, to marry, travel abroad, open a bank account, work or have some forms of elective surgery.
In January King Abdullah named 30 women to the Shura Council, an appointed body that debates future legislation and then gives non-binding advice to the government.
Abdullah, thought to have been born in 1923, is viewed as having pushed for greater women's education and opportunities to work, sometimes in the face of opposition from powerful conservative clerics.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Andrew Roche)