After negotiations with the International Olympic Committee, it appears that Saudi Arabia will send its first female competitors to the London 2012 Olympics in July. Is this the beginning of a new era or just a token response to outside pressure?
Saudi Arabia is one of three nations in the Olympic movements that have not sent female athletes to the Games. Qatar and Brunei are the others. But it appears that is about to change. Earlier this month, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press he was hopeful that 2012 would mark the end of Saudi Arabia’s prohibition against female competitors.
“We are optimistic that Saudi Arabia will indeed field female athletes,” Rogge said. “We are still discussing with them on the practicalities, but we are optimistic that this is going to happen.”
Now Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom’s interior minister who is widely thought of as more conservative than King Abdullah, says that the kingdom has agreed to letting women go to the Olympics, as long as the sports in which they participate are “in keeping with women’s nature and decency and do not contravene the teachings of the Shari’ah (law).”
Al-Hayat newspaper reports that a committee made up of several state institutions is looking into women’s sports and that the General Presidency for Youth Welfare is “ready to execute orders to prepare facilities for women as soon as they are issued.”
Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee met with the IOC in Lausanne last week and presented a list of names of female athletes who are qualified to compete. One of those could be 18-year-old equestrian athlete Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore.
Ed Hula, founding editor of the aroundtherings.com website which focuses on Olympic news and sports, tells VOA that if Malhas is allowed to compete for her country, it could change the culture in the kingdom.
“It would certainly mark a major turn of events,” Hula said. “It would be symbolic. It would be an important move and it would remain to be seen how much encouragement Saudi women took from this symbol, and how willing the Saudi establishment is to open the door to allow women more access to sport in their country.”
“Women cannot play in a soccer team; women cannot go swimming when they like. None of the facilities that exist for men, exist for women with the tiniest of exceptions based on some private efforts,” - Christophe Wilcke, Human Rights Watch.
Right now, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three nations in the Olympic movement that do not allow female competitors to represent them in the Olympics. Qatar has indicated it will change its policy and send women athletes to London; the International Herald Tribune says on its Rendezvous blog that Brunei has also changed its policy and will send women to London.
Human Rights Watch had called for the IOC to ban the Saudi Olympic team because its policy violated the Olympic charter, which outlaws discrimination against women. In a special report released in February, Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girl’s Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, HRW decried the lack of organized sports for women in the kingdom and highlighted some of the consequences of that policy – including increased obesity and related diseases such as diabetes among Saudi women.
Christophe Wilcke is a senior researcher in the Middle East North Africa Division. He tells VOA that the kingdom’s decision about the Olympics does not represent deep change.
“What I think the IOC is very keen on is to have a nice group picture at the Opening Ceremony in London in which every delegation has a woman representative,” Wilcke said, “and I would applaud them for that.”
However, he added that the Olympic values of fairness and good sportsmanship don’t exist in Saudi Arabia. “Women cannot play in a soccer team; women cannot go swimming when they like. None of the facilities that exist for men, exist for women with the tiniest of exceptions based on some private efforts.”
Now, says Wilcke, “we hear that there may be a woman participating in the discipline of shooting riflery or archery and we also hear that there may be a woman participating in the discipline of equestrian competition.” But he adds: “None of these women could have come up through the ranks of competitions among Saudi women athletes because these competitions simply don’t exist.”
Ed Hula agrees.
“The IOC President and other people who are very close to the Olympic movement will say ‘there is much more to the Olympics than just the Games themselves’,” he said. “Not necessarily the elite sports that are competed every four years, but these are the everyday sports, the things that men and women can do to keep themselves healthy and happy for a long life.”
A Long Road
Christophe Wilcke says he hopes the fervor over women competing for Saudi Arabia does not die once the London Games are over. He says Human Rights Watch will continue to press the IOC about Saudi Arabia until the kingdom makes several fundamental changes, such as allowing physical education to be offered to girls in government schools.
“There are 153 government-regulated sports clubs in the country supervised by the ministry of sports,” Wilcke said. “None of these 153 clubs have a women’s section. So there really is no sports infrastructure for women to compete and to not even go to the Olympics but simply to enjoy sports in that country.”
The Human Rights Watch researcher says that the real danger is that the IOC and the Saudi government might consider the case closed once the 2012 Games are over. Wilcke says it’s not just a sports question; it is a public health matter: The rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases are rising in Saudi Arabia more rapidly than in other countries. Especially among women, he says, because there are no exercise facilities for them. In addition, a high rate of urbanization in the kingdom results in a more sedentary lifestyle, especially for women, who leave their homes less often than men.
The London Olympics – with the first Saudi woman ever to represent the kingdom – begin July 27.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.