Earlier this month, six young female athletes from Saudi Arabia visited Washington D.C. The players trained with high schools teams in Virginia and Maryland, and they met with WNBA players.
The visit is the first-ever international sports exchange with Saudi Arabia, the State Department said, and it's part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vision of "smart power," using sports and technology as tools for foreign policy.
"It was a great program" said Lina al-Maeena, founder of Jeddah United team. "It was one of of its kind." In a phone interview with NPR, al-Maeena said they learned a lot from the experience:
The visit comes at a time when women in sports is still a contentious issue in Saudi Arabia. When the ministry of education revealed that the country was thinking about introducing sports to state-run girls schools, conservative clerics responded with fatwas (religious edicts) warning against it and saying it would lead to moral disintegration of women.
On his website, preacher Mohammed al-Habdan published a list of fourteen "evils" that would result from introducing sports to girls schools, including taking the veil off and the "masculinazation" of women.
Al-Maeena admits that the topic remains controversial and that she has to deal with criticism and being called names like "liberal."
But she says she is determined to continue working on her mission to get more women to practice sports.
Lina al-Maeena founded Jeddah United in 2003, and the women's basketball team has grown into a full-fledged sports business that trains men and women and organizes tournaments in different parts of the country.
"It's more of a social entrpenureship," she said.
However, none of the women's teams that play in these tournaments are recognized by the government. This lack of recognition means teams like Jeddah United cannot participate in regional or international competitions. Al-Maeena said she hopes the exchange program will help them gain official recognition.
The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs is running a campaign titled "No Women. No Play.," which is seeking that Saudi Arabia be banned from the Olympics for not allowing female athletes to participate. But the Intenational Olympic Committee does not support calls for a ban.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, only two other countries (Qatar and Brunei) have never sent female athletes to the Olympics. The IOC hopes these three countries will have women on their teams at next year's Games in London, but they said they will give no ultimatums or deadlines.
"It's down to just those three," Anita DeFrantz, head of the IOC's women and sports commission, told The Associated Press last week. "We hope that those three will, likewise, have women at 2011."
But the issue of women in sports, said al-Maeena, goes beyond ideological. It's also a matter of logistics or having the right facilities:
In 2009, Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the King's daughter, told local media that "it's high time to look into the matter of introducing sports at girls schools seriously." Princess Adela does not work in the government but she is married to the minister of education, and she is known to be a strong supporter of women's rights. Since then, the Saudi government has been quietly building gyms into the new schools. When Princess Noora Bint Abdulrahman University opens its doors to a new class this fall, a large sports and recreation center will be part of the women's-only college.
Al-Maeena said women sports in Saudi Arabia have a long way to go, but she added that this is a great chance to shape it.
"This is our chance to teach and define sports in the way it is intended to be."
Ahmed Al Omran is an intern with NPR's social media desk. He's blogged from Saudi Arabia since 2004, until he came stateside to attend Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.