Olympics: For Saudi Women, Only a Starting Line

Posted on July 26, 2012

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Source: Human Rights Watch

  • Members of the Jeddah Kings United all-female team attend football exercise in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
    © AP Images

(London) – The participation of two Saudi female athletes in the London Olympics is an important first step but does not go far enough in addressing entrenched problems of gender discrimination in the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi Arabia should end the effective ban preventing millions of women and girls from practicing sports inside the kingdom.

Two female athletes will represent Saudi Arabia: Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field. Attar, who lives and trains outside the kingdom, has said, “I hope it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the women were invited to compete under the “universality” clause, which allows athletes who do not meet qualifying times to compete when their participation is deemed important “for reasons of equality.”

“That two women will compete for the Saudi team for the first time in the history of the Olympics is a first step,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch “But the race for gender equality in Saudi Arabia cannot be won until the millions of women and girls who are now deprived of athletic opportunities can also exercise their right to practice sports.”

On July 5, 2012, an official from the Saudi sports ministry denied a request by private citizens to hold a women’s Ramadan sports tournament featuring basketball, volleyball, and football (soccer). The organizers had said the event would “comply with Sharia requirements and national laws, such as non-mixing of genders, [obtaining] guardians’ approval, and compliance with modest dress.” The Sports Ministry official gave no reason for denying permission for the tournament.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men.

The ban on women’s private, for-fee and fully equipped sports clubs has forced women to largely restrict themselves to “health” facilities, usually attached to hospitals that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports. Membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls.

That two women will compete for the Saudi team for the first time in the history of the Olympics is a first step. But the race for gender equality in Saudi Arabia cannot be won until the millions of women and girls who are now deprived of athletic opportunities can also exercise their right to practice sports.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives
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