Can Saudi women really compete at the 2012 Olympics?
As reported on WVoN last month, Saudi sportswomen are now permitted, in theory anyway, to compete in the 2012 Olympics.
However, according to Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, president of the Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia, they can only do so if they dress modestly, are accompanied by a male guardian and do not mix with men during the Games.
In an interview with Aljazeerah, bin Faisal said: “The athlete and her guardian must pledge not to break these conditions.”
Dressing modestly means “wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia” (Islamic law).
The prince added that for previous Games: “We had no women athletes… But now there are many Saudi female athletes who have expressed to the IOC [International Olympics Committee] and international unions their desire to participate.”
It remains to be seen whether any, and if so how many, Saudi women will make it to the Games as the front-runner, equestrian Dalma Rushdi Mahlas has been reportedly ruled out after failing to qualify.
Some Saudi women are worried that there may be a clampdown on women playing sport in the country once the Games are over, especially if Saudi sportswomen compete and do not perform well.
“We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard,” said Rawh Abdullah, captain of a female soccer team in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in an interview with the Associated Press.
“We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience.”
Speaking about the prospect of Saudi women competing in the Games, Abdullah continued:
“If they do well, it will be OK, but if they have weak performance, they will turn to us, and say, ‘See, you pushed, you went, and you lost. You shamed us.”
She indicated that she would prefer proper investment in training Saudi female athletes before entering them as Olympic hopefuls.
A view echoed by Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan, a Saudi academic based in Riyadh, who says structural and, more importantly, cultural changes are needed before Saudi women can embrace sport and compete at international level.
Meanwhile Human Rights Watch (HRW) is sceptical about the statement from the Saudi Arabia embassy in Britain that it is “looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games”.
The New York-based group warned the IOC against becoming “complacent because one or two Saudi women are allowed to compete in the London Olympics.
“The fact that so few women are ‘qualified’ to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country’s restrictions on women’s rights,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for HRW.
HRW warned last month that despite the Saudi decision on the London Games, millions of women are still banned from sports in the country.
“It’s an important step forward, but fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom,” the watchdog said.
There are no written laws that prohibit Saudi women from participating in sports. However, they are not allowed into stadiums and cannot rent sports venues.
Furthermore, there is no physical education for girls in public schools, and no women-only hours at swimming pools. The few gyms that admit women are prohibitively expensive for most.
Women cannot register sports clubs, league competitions and other female-only tournaments with the government.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent female athletes to the Olympics.