A Saudi woman seen ahead of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia | AP
MOSCOW: In jeans, headscarves and veils, dozens of Saudi women draped in their country's green flag and sporting matching face paint streamed into Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday to support their national team against Russia in the World Cup's opening match.
More importantly, perhaps, they were projecting the image of a new Saudi Arabia in which they are slowly emerging from decades of harsh inequality as part of ambitious reforms undertaken by the country's young crown prince.
The conservative kingdom where much of life is governed by Islamic laws shook off some of its most oppressive practices against women this year. Women were allowed into sports stadiums in January for the first time to watch soccer matches, although they were segregated in the stands, sticking to the "family section" away from all-male crowds elsewhere.
Saudi authorities have also lifted the world's only ban on women driving, a decision that will go into effect June 24 and end women's long standing complaints about having to hire costly male drivers, use taxis or rely on male relatives.
Even with the openings, the kingdom remains far from an open society. As the heir apparent, 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pushes forth reforms that improve the country's image abroad, he has also cracked down on women's rights defenders who have campaigned for years for greater freedoms.
"If we are to talk big picture, then I say that women coming to Russia to support the national team is another step toward equality," said Nada Altuwaijry, a British-educated media expert from the Saudi capital Riyadh, who says she has been passionate about soccer since she was age 12.
"Eventually, we will achieve equality between men and women. I am very optimistic. Randomly pick up any person and ask him what he or she thinks of Saudi Arabia and the answer will be very positive," said the 27-year-old, who sported green face paint of date palms, a Bedouin-style green line on the chin and a green Saudi flag on her shoulders.
In white denim pants, Altuwaijry is in Russia accompanied by a colleague whom she referred to as a brother but explained it would have been no issue for her to come alone, something not many Saudi women would have done just a year ago.
Shopping for World Cup memorabilia before heading to her stadium seat, she rubbed shoulders with women, men and children from across the world in a festive atmosphere on a sunny Moscow summer day outside Luzhniki Stadium.
Other Saudi women were similarly draped in Saudi flags or enthusiastically waved them. Some carried posters of the crown prince, who attended Thursday's match, which Russia won 5-0, and was sitting next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In some ways, allowing Saudi women for the first time to watch a soccer game back in January and their presence here Thursday is a triumph of sorts for the sport as something that brings people together. The Saudi women, many watching a soccer game on foreign soil for the first time, mingled with people in a genuinely cosmopolitan and care-free atmosphere outside the stadium. Long stereotyped as shy or aloof, they posed for photos outside the stadium with people they didn't even know.
Reem Al-Muteiry came to Moscow with her mother and siblings, courtesy of an all-paid trip offered by the kingdom's highest sports body. Wearing a flowing robe and a hijab, the 25-year-old civil servant said she cared little about soccer.
"But I came all the way here for the sake of our national team," she said. "The presence of Saudi women here should be a source of pride for both the kingdom and the team."