Conflict & Justice

Saudi women head to London, but clerics still oppose sports for girls


Seventeen-year-old Sarah Attal will be one of two Saudi Arabian women competing at the London Olympics. She's shown here at her training facility in San Diego, Calif.

For the first time in the history of the Olympics, there will be female athletes competing from every country participating. Saudi Arabia, which had until yesterday banned women from the Olympics, reversed that decision and is sending two women to the London games. 

After intense international pressure from human rights groups, the media, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Kingdom announced that Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (judo) and Sarah Attar (800-meter race) will be part of the official Saudi delegation. Both were invited by the IOC to compete for their country. 

"A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going," Attar said in a video from her training base in San Diego. "It's such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport."

I wrote in April on the issue of women from Saudi Arabia competing at the Olympics, and the main issue then, and now, is the religious extremism that governs the country. 

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The women who will compete in London will not be free from religious restrictions, even in competition. The AFP reported yesterday that Saudi Sports Minister Prince Nawaf bin Faisal told the Al-Jazirah newspaper that rules and regulations for the women will include modest dress, and they will not be allowed to "mix with men." They will also always be accompanied by male handlers. 

Islam is the governing religion in Saudi Arabia, and according to some interpretations of Sharia law, which the Kingdom abides by, women are not allowed to drive, be in the presence of male strangers, be admitted to hospitals, or get jobs without permission. They are not allowed within sports stadiums, and although there are no laws against women competing in sports, they cannot register for sports clubs with the government, there are no physical education programs for girls in public schools, and they are banned from national athletic trials, which is why no women actually qualified for the Olympics, and were instead invited.

"Male guardianship and gender segregation restrict women’s freedom to leave the house, to work, to participate in public life, and even to go to government offices and to courts," said Human Rights Watch in a February article about women in Saudi Arabia. The article also described the government's rationale for disallowing women to participate in sports: 

Speaking to the Saudi television channel Al Eqtisadiah, grand mufti Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest official religious authority, declared, “Women should be housewives,” and “There is no need for them to engage in sports.” Other Saudi clerics have said they fear that once women engage in sports, they will shed modest Islamic dress and mingle unnecessarily with men. Some Saudi clerics have expressed the view that engaging in sports can cause women to lose their virginity.

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Human Rights Watch has applauded the decision to send women to London, but is calling for more movement from Saudi Arabia on the issue of women's athletics. 

"The participation of two Saudi women in London is an important breakthrough, but will not hide the fact that millions of Saudi girls are effectively banned from sports in schools in Saudi Arabia," said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch. "Now is the time for the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage and lay down achievable conditions to jump-start sport in the kingdom."

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of Saudi Arabia, check out our Special Report "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9/11"