Women's basketball saved my life and it is now changing Saudi Arabia

A team portrait of a women's basketball team in Saudi Arabia. Mona Alzubair

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- At a crucial moment in my early 20s, my life was saved consecutively by God, family and basketball.

Yes, basketball.

In Saudi Arabia, I'm not alone. In a country rich in tradition and filled with faith, women are making historic progress on the athletic fields (and courts).

Saudi sportswomen are on the verge of a historic breakthrough, similar to what our American sisters achieved more than four decades ago, when Title IX prohibited gender discrimination in college and high school athletics.

The country will send its second delegation of female athletes to the Rio Olympics. As women break barriers in sports, more of us are also working and running businesses, graduating from and teaching at universities, and running for and serving in public office.

These success stories may be surprising to many for whom Saudi Arabia remains one of the most misunderstood nations on earth. When I recently visited the United States as part of the delegation accompanying Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman -- the architect of many social and economic reforms -- many Americans were surprised that a Saudi woman could hold a career in business and sports.

My own story speaks volumes about a changing Saudi Arabia. I've been playing basketball since I was a child and captained my high school basketball team. My uncle was my coach, and, when our families got together, either at home or by the beach, my sister, brothers, cousins and I would play for hours on end.

I came to the United States for college, at the University of New Mexico and George Mason. I studied hard on weekdays and played pickup basketball on weekends.

After graduating in 2000, I went back to Saudi Arabia, got married and had my first child -- a daughter. Then I suffered from postpartum depression.

Looking for ways to restore my spirits, I prayed. And I played basketball.

After 90 minutes of basketball, I would feel energized again. That's why I say I was saved by "God, family and basketball."

As my life continued to revolve around my faith, my family and basketball, my mother finally asked me, "What are you going to do with your life?" My master's in psychology helped me see that physical activity served as an antidepressant that could help countless others.

So I decided to pursue my passion, basketball, as a career, with the support of a sturdy family backbone -- including the strong female role models of my mother and grandmother. But it was the supportive men in my family -- my father, husband, brothers and uncles -- who were the ones who kept pushing me to pursue my passion when it was controversial in some segments of Saudi society.

I founded the Jeddah United women's basketball team, and various divisions that mushroomed from it, as well as the Jeddah United Sports Company, which runs teams in co-ed sports. Thousands of Saudi women and children have participated in our leagues, tournaments and clinics.

These ventures are opening new vistas for Saudi women at home and abroad. In 2006, when we first sought a license for the company, women's sports were a taboo topic in the Kingdom, so we obtained the permit through the Ministry of Commerce, not through the government authority for sports.

Our women's basketball team played games around the world, including the United States, Malaysia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Maldives. We tried to change these countries' views of Saudi Arabia while introducing our players to a wider world beyond.

Seeing our success, our efforts were endorsed by the Ministry of Health in emphasizing the importance of exercise for women in order to reduce obesity, diabetes, psychological stress and even the risk of breast cancer.

Now, our goals include creating an official Saudi Women's National Basketball Team that will compete in future international competitions -- including the Olympics.

Meanwhile, Saudi sportswomen's accomplishments are encouraging women to expand their participation in other areas of national life, as envisioned by our country's Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program.

These plans call for diversifying our economy from oil, growing new industries and increasing employment in the private sector. In order to achieve all these goals, Saudi women will need to play a greater role in our economy and our entire society.

Already, women comprise a majority of the students in colleges and universities in Saudi Arabia, with more than 15,000 female faculty members teaching at these institutions. Women's participation in the workforce has increased by 48 percent in the last five years, and we now own more than 70,000 businesses in our capital city of Riyadh alone.

We are getting and keeping new and better jobs in industries and occupations from retail, hospitality and healthcare to journalism and the law. And, in government, there are now 30 women serving in the Saudi Shura (the highest Consultative Council to the King), as well as 20 women in local councils.

Basketball helped me become a stronger and healthier woman, and sportswomen will make Saudi Arabia a stronger and healthier country.

Lina Al Maeena is the founder of the Jeddah United women's basketball team and the Jeddah United Sports Company. She was named one of the "200 Most Powerful Arab Women" by Forbes.