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Pressure pays off – at least one Saudi woman will take part at 2012 Olympics

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Penny Hopkins
WVoN co-editor

It has taken a damning 51-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), widespread condemnation from sporting and non-sporting bodies alike, and plenty of high-level diplomacy on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but is seems that the Saudi Arabian authorities will allow at least one woman to compete in the London Olympics.

Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said that female athletes will be allowed to go provided that “their sports meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

Tokenistic it may be, but until this week, even that seemed unlikely.  So, at this moment, the IOC will grab the concession with both hands.

The two other countries never to have sent a female competitor, Brunei and Qatar, have already indicated that they will comply with the Olympic Charter promoting gender equality.

This is especially pertinent to Qatar which has bid for the 2020 games and cannot hope to win if its discriminatory practises continue.

However, this Olympian ideal is a relatively new one.  The IOC itself has a less than impressive history of gender equality.

Established in 1894, there was no female committee member until 1981.  Today only 20 of the 106 committee members are women.  There were no women at all at the first modern games in 1896.

By 1912 the London games saw 44 women taking part, a meagre 2.2% of the total.  In 1996 there were still 26 all-male teams competing.  It wasn’t until 2007 that the Olympic Charter was amended to “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures”.

By the 2008 Beijing Games women accounted for 42% of the total comptetitors with only Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sending an all-male team.

HRW has called the Saudi actions “a positive step toward ending the country’s pervasive discrimination against women in sport.”  All well and good, but how ready  to take part can these women be ?

There are no physical education classes for girls in state-run schools. Conservative clerics have warned that the effort required in running and jumping may cause damage to a woman’s hymen and thus ruin her chances of marriage.

In a crackdown in 2009, women’s gyms, swimming pools and running tracks were closed.  There are no official sports facilties for women.

But there are women determined to take part in the sports they love.  There are underground athletics clubs and football teams established using hospitals and health clubs as bases, but participants are not going to be drawn from these.

IOC President, Jacques Rogge, has indicated that there may be options that would allow women who don’t meet the required standard to compete, but we are unlikely to know the final outcome until the meeting of the IOC Executive Board in Quebec at the end of May.

A list of  potential athletes has been put forward.  Favourite must be equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who, when overlooked by the Saudi authorities for the 2010 Youth Games team, financed herself and won a bronze mendal at the games in Singapore.

Ironically, as an all-male equestrian team has already qualified for the games, Malhas would have to take the place of a man if she is to participate.  Indeed it may be that she will be the only one, although there are also suggestions the Saudis may send as many as three female officials to the games.

Although there is fierce opposition to the relaxing of the official Saudi stance, more liberal voices are making themselves heard, pointing out that the Koran does not specifically bar women from taking part in sport.

All of the women who currently do – both officially and unofficially – will be hoping that those voices gain sway in determining the future of their sporting lives and, indeed, their lives in general.

Until that time, they will have to hang their hopes on the token woman or women who make their high-profile appearance at this year’s Olympic Games.

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