Dressed demurely in black leggings and unflattering baggy t-shirts, rather than their trademark low-cut bikini tops, WWE superstars Natalya and Lacey Evans starred in the first ever women’s wrestling match in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, the latest unlikely event in the kingdom as it attempts to shrug off an ultra-conservative image.
As they arrived in the ring for the WWE Crown Jewel event, with their flowing blonde hair uncovered, three teenagers laughed out loud having earlier in the evening been entranced by the spectacle served up by male, shirtless fighters.
“It’s nonsense,” said one to the other, struggling to be heard above the fireworks and rock ‘n’ roll music which blasted into the Riyadh night.
Evans, a former U.S. Marine, and Natalya appeared at the King Fahd Stadium suitably dressed down for the occasion, their usual costumes left behind in the United States.
“Do you want them to be sent to jail?” said an expatriate fan who wished to remain anonymous when defending the dress code.
“Women’s wrestling in Saudi Arabia, yes, but only if they dress like that, otherwise it would not be possible, even if it’s a fact that the clothing is an integral part of the show,” added a young fan wearing a black World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) t-shirt, adorned with pictures of his favorite fighters.
Saudi Arabia is boosting entertainment that allows citizens to have fun, in what some see as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment.
De facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced reforms including allowing concerts, reopening cinemas, and lifting a prohibition on women driving as part of a modernization drive.
However, when it comes to women’s wrestling, it may be a long, hard road.
Last year, a broadcast during a men’s wrestling match of a promotional video featuring scantily-clad female wrestlers sparked a scandal in the country, forcing the authorities concerned to apologize for the “indecent” images.
Ahmed, 24, who says he follows the sport from the kingdom, appeared disappointed with such furors.
“I was waiting for the women’s match. Those who want to see such a spectacle should have the right to access it, and those who do not like don’t have to come,” he said.
Ali, 40, attended with his two children and said he wanted to support the social changes in progress in the country.
However, he thinks there should be “limits.”
“These women’s shows, honestly…”, said Ali, wearing his country’s traditional all-white robe.
“That women drive, it’s already a shock for me. I’m not against it but you have to get used to it.”
Despite his discomfort, he said he had promised his daughter, pulling at his arm to show him her favorite wrestler, to teach her to drive when she is old enough.