Saudi Women To Compete in London 2012


By Cressida Smart

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced that Saudi Arabia is to send
two female athletes to compete in the London 2012 Games. Sarah Attar will compete
in the 800m and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in the judo competition.
Both will though dress in such a way as “to preserve their dignity”, which is likely to
mean loose-fitting garments and a scarf covering the hair but not the face. However, the
inclusion of the Saudi women means that, for the first time in the history of the Games,
there will be a female entrant from every competing nation.

The statement came after months of pressure on Saudi Arabia and negotiations between it
and the IOC. Due to the lack of Saudi women competitors, the entire Saudi national team
was threatened with being barred from participating in the Games. For Saudi Arabia, a
country that has banned its women and girls from playing sports, finding women with
Olympic level training was a difficult task. Only a few days before this announcement,
the Saudi National Olympic Committee had told the press that it could not find a single
woman qualified to compete.

IOC President Jacques Rogge welcomed the “very positive news”, remarking, “I am
pleased to see that our continued dialogue has come to fruition.” Sarah Attar said, “It’s
such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women…to
get more involved in sport.” Female athletes from Qatar and Brunei are also due to attend
for the first time. Brunei’s Maziah Mahusin will complete in the athletics, while Qatar has
entered athletes into the swimming (Nada Arkaji), athletics (Noor al-Malki), table tennis
(Aya Magdy) and shooting (Bahiya al-Hamad). Bahiya al-Hamad is also set to carry the
Qatari flag at the opening ceremony, in what she described as a “truly historic moment”.

The wider issue however, remains at large. Very few women in Saudi Arabia play
sports. This is limited to exercising at home or playing in underground leagues that are
segregated by gender. The small number of gyms for women are called “health clubs”
because an establishment under the name “gym for women” cannot be licensed; usually
they are attached to hospitals, in order to receive a commercial license, which men’s
gyms do not have to do. Saudi Arabia may be the only country in the world where girls,
unlike boys, do not receive physical education in government schools and that has no
state programs for supporting competitive female athletes. Besides facing discrimination
in schools and competitive sports, Saudi women are not allowed to play in official sports
clubs or even watch matches in stadiums; games between girls football, volleyball and
basketball teams in private schools and colleges are held secretly.

The simple act of allowing women to participate in the Olympics this year was a big
step in a country holding one of the worst records on women’s rights. Focusing on
sport has two advantages for advancing women’s rights and welfare in the kingdom.
Firstly, denying women the ability to practice sports is increasingly recognised as
detrimental to Saudi public health, and, with the planning this year for a new National
School Sports Strategy, there is a real opportunity to persuade Saudi officials to include
physical education for girls. Secondly, the ability to practice sports is intimately tied

to the fundamental problems of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia: how can women
exercise without being able to drive to sports facilities, how can they travel for matches
and tournaments while always needing the approval of a male guardian? Ending
discrimination in sports has the potential to widen cracks in the guardianship system and
other discriminatory practices.

The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia effectively treats adult women like legal
minors who are not entitled to make decisions about their lives and well-being. Women
cannot work, travel, study, marry or sometimes even open a bank account, without
the permission of their male guardian. They are prevented from accessing government
agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative.
The need to establish separate office spaces for women is a disincentive to hiring female
employees and female students are often relegated to unequal facilities offering them
unequal academic opportunities.

The reasoning behind such bans is not related to religion, but rather to traditions, cultural
standards and laws that govern women’s participation in any kind of public activity.
Society is generally conservative when it comes to gender relations and there are
requirements that women wear the veil, work places that are gender segregated and do
not drive.

Speaking last month to the Saudi television channel Al Eqtisadiah, grand mufti
Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest official religious authority,
declared, “Women should be housewives…there is no need for them to engage in sports.”
Other Saudi clerics have said they fear that once women engage in sports, they will
shed modest Islamic dress and mingle unnecessarily with men. Some Saudi clerics have
expressed the view that engaging in sports can cause women to lose their virginity. There
are other Saudi clerics, however, who view sports for women as a religious necessity,
especially in light of increased rates of obesity and related diseases.

Nonetheless, as with other issues facing women in Saudi Arabia, there has been progress
over the past few years. In 2006, Jeddah United Sports Company, a rare women’s
exercise club that runs a female basketball team, was founded by two sisters. In 2008,
Arwa Mutabagani became the first Saudi woman to be appointed as a top sports
administrator, at the Equestrian Federation and most recently, in 2010, show jumper
Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was the first Saudi woman to compete in the Youth Olympics in
Singapore where she won a bronze medal.

For progress to truly be made, the international community needs to take a stand and
act. The IOC must uphold Olympic sporting values as embodied in the Olympic Charter.
One of the five “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” bans “discrimination of any
kind,” which includes discrimination against women. In the past, they have taken action.
From 1964 until the end of apartheid in 1990, the IOC banned South African athletes
from taking part in the Games because of discrimination against black athletes. In
1999, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, the IOC suspended that country’s National
Olympic Committee, in part because of discrimination against women in sports. The

IOC found these measures violated its Charter, which prohibits political interference in
sports and discrimination against women. The Taliban measures took place in a broader
environment in which the Taliban executed people in the main Kabul sports stadium and
oppressed women and girls in other spheres, such as by banning the education of girls.
After the fall of the Taliban, Afghan athletes, including women, were readmitted to the
Olympic Games.

Beyond the IOC, the United Nations (UN) too can contribute to ending the discrimination
against women and girls in sports. Two UN human rights committees – the Committee
on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights
of the Child – should hold Saudi Arabia to its treaty obligations, which provide for the
right of women and girls, without discrimination, to practice sports as part of the right
to cultural activity and of the right to health. Furthermore, the member states of the UN
Human Rights Council should assess in the next Universal Periodic Review of Saudi
Arabia’s human rights record (in 2013) the kingdom’s progress in ending discrimination
in sports against women and girls.

Accepting Shahrkhani and Attar as part the Saudi team to the Olympics, regardless of
how they perform, should inspire and encourage many girls – from Saudi Arabia and
other countries – to take up sports. In order to avoid the same last-minute search for
qualified female athletes for the next Olympics, steps should be taken by Saudi Arabia
and the international community to make the right facilities and training available for
aspiring female athletes. This will be another noteworthy step towards equality for Saudi


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