Let the Women Play


Image from muslimwomennews.com

As countries across the world gear up for the London 2012 Olympics, which are due to open on July 27th, Ken Roth, Executive Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) writes on Thunderclap, “The Olympics launch in a month and Saudi Arabia stands alone in the world banning women from sport. By refusing to allow women on their national team, Saudi Arabia violates the Olympic Charter. London 2012: Don’t let Saudi Arabia play unless their women can!”

According to HRW, by disallowing female participation in the Olympics, Saudi Arabia is in violation of both the 4th and 5th Fundamental Principles of Olympics, which state that “the practice of sport is a human right”, and “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Thus, there are sentiments that Saudi Arabia’s participation in this year’s Summer Olympics ought to be conditioned on its commitment to sending female athletes to the games.

However, according to Prince Nawaf al-Faisal, the sports minister of Saudi Arabia and chief of the Saudi Olympic Committee, female sports activity has not existed [in the kingdom thus far], and there is no move thereto in this regard. Speaking at a news conference in April, he opined that “At present, [Saudi Arabia] is not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.” Saudi Arabia, a patriarchal monarchy, places strict restrictions on the lives of Saudi women. According to a hefty report issued by the Human Rights Watch in February, at present, existing laws in the desert kingdom ban millions of girls and women from sporting, such as the exclusion of females in physical education classes, the disallowance of female access to sporting facilities, and the non-existence of qualifying competitions for females to join the national sport teams.

Moreover, the opposition to female participation in athletics could be attributed to what the Washington Post dubs “ultra-conservative clerics”, many of whom feel that female participation in sports would be satanic, and in violation of Islamic Law.

Despite the above, Saudi Arabia agreed, however, that they were open to female participation if these females were invited to participate by the International Olympics Committee, which could be, as Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle Eastern and North African Division puts it, slightly “tokenistic”. In other words, Saudi Arabia was open to women participating outside of the delegation, as happened in the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, when Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a teenage Equestrian, was invited by the IOC to ride for her country. However, they are not willing to budge on the issue of inviting women to be on the team.

On the 116th Anniversary of the Olympics, Aniti DeFrantz, IOC Women and Sport Chair, mentioned that she is confident that Saudi Women will one day take part in the Olympics, and is optimistic about that future. And besides, the Olympic charter is as such – let the women, let Saudi women, play.

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