WWE superstars Natalya and Lacey Evans just went down in the history books as the first women to put on a professional women’s match in Saudi Arabia, in the latest attempt by the kingdom to ease restrictions on women and appear less conservative.
As the wrestlers made their entrances at the King Fahd Stadium for the “Crown Jewel” event last Thursday, the crowd roared with excitement.
But the wrestlers weren’t wearing their usual form-fitting attire. To adhere to Saudi Arabia’s strict laws regulating dress, they wore full bodysuits covered by baggy t-shirts — though Natalya and Evens were permitted to wrestle without head coverings.
After winning the match, Natalya picked Evans up from the mat and the two embraced and raised their hands in celebration to the delight of the crowd.
The match came about as part of a 10-year venture between WWE and Saudi Arabia as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Saudi Vision 2030,” a tourism initiative which aims to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil and gas, which accounts for 70% of its export revenue and 50% of its GDP.
The feel-good moment, however, didn’t do much to impress U.S. scholars of the region.
“Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam is perhaps the most puritanical of anywhere in the Muslim world. It’s the most puritanical on issues of gender, sexuality, entertainment, and regulation of public spaces,” Dr. Christa Salamandra, anthropology professor at The City University of New York, told Yahoo Finance. “Saudi Arabia really grabs the lion’s share of Western media attention … but it’s not terribly representative of the Arab world at large or the Greater Middle East,” she said.
Pascal Menoret, professor of modern Middle East studies at Brandeis University cautioned against anyone reading too much into the event or the possible impact it could have going forward. “The Saudi government is operating a worldwide propaganda campaign to whitewash its repression of activists, including feminists, and that one should take seemingly good news coming from there with a heavy pinch of salt.”
Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.