Activists question Saudi Arabia's commitment to women competing in the Olympics

Saudi_Crown_Prince_Abdullah_and_George_W._Bush_897444584.jpg

Saudi King Abdullah has supported women's rights in the country, but many believe he is only trying to appease the international community. (Photo by Arcimboldo via Wikimedia Commons.)

This week, the Saudi Arabian embassy in London announced that the kingdom would allow its women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time.

Player utilities

However, human-rights activists have challenged Saudi Arabia's commitment after it emerged that the one likely female candidate had been disqualified.

Dalma Malhas, a 20-year-old equestrian, was poised to be Saudi Arabia's first female competitor. She took home the bronze in the 2010 Youth Olympics.

But Monday, the International Equestrian Federation stated that Malhas will not be competing in London because her horse had suffered an injury.

"It is a hundred percent the case they knew she couldn't compete when they made the announcement," Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch told the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday. She also said the Saudi announcement "was total spin for the West."

Human Rights Watch has called for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the London Olympics if the country declines to send women athletes. The organization challenged the country Thursday to adopt new policies supporting Saudi women.

Laura Bashraheel, a journalist with the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, said the Saudi Olympic Committee has not yet confirmed its sponsorship of women athletes.

She also doubts the validity of the embassy's statement, and with the recent news, it remains unclear whether Saudi women will actually compete in London this summer.

"There's nothing official yet," Bashraheel said. "That's the problem ... there's no official statement, which makes all of us really confused."

The Saudi Olympic Committee's last official statement concerning the participation of women was in April. According to Bashraheel, it said that women may compete, but will not be sponsored by the government.

This means that women "can compete under the Saudi flag but [are] not part of the Saudi Olympic Committee; not officially sent from Saudi Arabia, which makes it very complicated," she said.

According to Human Rights Watch, this spring, the head of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal, said the nation is "not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics."

Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar had been the only three nations to not send women to the 2008 Games. But this summer, Brunei is sending a female hurdler, while Qatar is sending three in shooting, swimming and track.

It's possible that Saudi Arabia may be the only nation to not have women compete.

Though the IEF said there were "a number of other female athletes" under consideration, no name of any other possible Saudi entrant had been put forward by Thursday.

"We haven't received any news about any women competing except Dalma because she's the only one who's competed internationally before," Bashraheel said.

She suggested that international pressure may have played a role in Saudi Arabia's announcement.

"Maybe it's because of international pressure. The thing is, true, we still need to focus on internal issues of sports and allowing women to practice sports," she said.

Saudi Arabia currently has a policy banning women from playing team sports. Human Rights Watch called for the nation to change this policy and others to "create real, systemic change."

Some of the proposed policy changes include eliminating Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, which says that women must obtain permission from a male guardian to work, study, marry or access health care, and eliminating the country's ban on women driving cars.

A group of Saudi women activists are hoping that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will help lift the ban barring women from driving.

The activists are encouraging women to get behind the wheel on Friday in the second annual driving protest, Women2Drive.

The movement is led by Manal al Sharif, who was jailed in 2011 after posting a YouTube video of herself driving.

"If women don't take action, the authorities will not lift the ban. It is up to women to decide," she told Reuters.

Saudi King Abdullah has supported expanding women's rights, but the activists are now asking Abdullah to show support by stopping any punishments imposed by the authorities.

As for Saudi Arabia's announcement on women in the Olympics, Al Sharif told The Wall Street Journal it was "to make people happy out there," internationally.

"Not for us," Al Sharif said.

Comments