Only Two Saudi Female Olympians but Another Victory Over Hardline Clerics

Published on Huffington Post (Sports Section) here

As a women’s rights activist, I am really pleased that the London 2012 Olympics will be the first to include female athletes from every competing nation. Brunei and Qatar had previously held out on female inclusion but will now have women representing their countries. This left Saudi Arabia as the lone nation not sending women up until they reversed their decision last week when they announced that Sarah Attar would compete in the 800m race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim in judo.

Although they are only sending two athletes, who actually live outside of the Kingdom, I think this is a very important breakthrough considering Saudi Arabia is one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world. Some critics argue that this decision changes little for women inside the country. I disagree because progress is already underway and women are a part of that change. King Abdullah, who has been the most progressive monarchy so far, has already started planting the seeds of change for his successor to build upon.

Last year the King opened the largest women’s university campus in the world to boost women’s higher education. He has promised to allow women to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections and is permitting women to now work in clothes and cosmetic stores. King Abdullah is even trying to reign in the notorious morality police because the public has openly started to accuse them of being too aggressive and overstepping the mark. So earlier this year, he replaced the head of the ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ with a more moderate cleric. Two months ago, he went even further and dismissed one of his most hardline advisers, Sheikh Abdelmohsen al-Obeikan.

These measured steps cannot be ignored. The control exercised by religious scholars over state matters is slowly being decreased. So the decision to include women in the Saudi Olympics team is another victory over the hardline clerics. Judging from King Abdullah’s recent track record, he may well have wanted women from within the kingdom to participate in the London games contrary to what the clergy wanted, who don’t want women involved in sports at all. They claim it leads to immorality and that excessive movements and jumping may also cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. I have to say these religious scholars seem obsessed with sex – ‘protecting virginity’ tends to be the most commonly used excuse to curb the rights of women and girls. It has even been used to ban women from driving. So under the circumstances perhaps the best compromise for now was sending two sportswomen who lived outside the kingdom.

I know the rate of progress is frustratingly slow but a gradual approach is more likely to achieve women’s rights that are sustainable. We must remember that the monarch is fighting a constant ‘tug of war’ with the religious establishment who impose strict gender segregation and prohibit women from doing most things, unless they are granted permission by a male relative, such as husband, father, or son etc. They are very influential in Saudi Arabia and if the pace of change is too rapid, the public will probably side with the clergy.

With regards to sports, Saudi Arabia will be making history by sending a mixed gender Olympics team. They have set a precedent now – it will be hard to reverse this commitment in four years time. This decision now paves the way for women activists to demand internal policy changes, enactment of laws and provision to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within and outside the kingdom. Currently they have little opportunity to get involved in sports because physical education is not allowed in girl’s schools and there are no sports facilities for women. Also, most of the 150 or so sports clubs that are officially registered with government do not allow females into their sports grounds. So for these Olympic games, there may not have been females inside Saudi Arabia at the appropriate standard to participate anyway. However, there will be no excuses next time – they have plenty of time to train Saudi women for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

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