Saudi Arabia Almost Ends Gender Apartheid

By Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

English: Young Saudi Arabian woman wearing Isl...
Saudi Arabian woman wearing Sharia-mandated dress and coverings. Via Wikimedia Commons.

After caving in under international pressure, Saudi Arabia will now allow women to compete in the London Summer Olympics – or one woman, at least, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, Ohio-born and Europe-raised. But it turned out the equestrian show jumper doesn’t meet the requirements, her horse is injured and she will not be going to London after all.

A “symbolic and empty gesture,” a “victory for tokenism” and convenient PR move come to mind: Saudi officials are able to quell the international protest and outrage against what is nothing short of gender apartheid, while not having to actually do anything about it –and they get to blame the failure on independent Olympic standards that are out of their control.

For a scary second, Saudi Arabia was inching away from the Middle Ages. It is now the only country who will not send women to the Olympics. Both Qatar and the Southeast Asian country of Brunei, last bastions of institutional sexism, have recently allowed female athletes to participate, after sending male delegations for decades without much ado from the International Olympics Committee. The IOC, did, on the other hand, ban apartheid-era South Africa from the Olympics for 30 years until it allowed black athletes to compete. They apparently miss the connection and don’t find this as morally repugnant.

But few countries in the world can top Saudi Arabia’s institutional misogyny, on and off the courts. Not only can women not drive, hold public positions, or leave the house without a male guardian; they are also barred from practicing sports merely because they are girls.

So it’s not only a question of nonexistent infrastructure for women and girls to exercise; they also risk social ostracism, punishment and harassment from religious police. The only reason Rushdi Malhas even qualifies is because she did not have to grow up in such state of oppression.

According to Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, “Saudi clerics agree there is no religious prohibition on women exercising,” but they “protest that women playing sports may dress immodestly, ‘unnecessarily’ leave their houses, and mingle with unrelated men.” An HRW report from February cited a Saudi cleric who was worried that “too much movement and jumping” would affect the “health of a virgin girl.”

All the while, the Saudi government is trying to paint this as part of a wider reform, not just a desperate attempt to avoid being banned from the games in the form of a token female athlete. “The Olympic decision is part of an ongoing process, it’s not isolated,” a senior Saudi official told the BBC. Sure, King Abdullah will allow women to vote in 2015, (as long as a male guardian allows it), and he overturned a woman driver’s lashings in September last year. But women still cannot drive, they still have segregated facilities, and religious conservatives, like the Grand Mufti, Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh, still believe and profess that “women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.” Though it seems like a step in the right direction, it was merely a distraction to continue human rights abuses few in the international community do anything about.

2 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia Almost Ends Gender Apartheid

  1. For just a moment I was excited about finding this link, up until I read your article. You really should get your facts straight about women in Saudi Arabia. Maybe a face to face interview with women from Saudi. Clearly you have never even entered the country. Pretty safe to say that Dalma Rusdih Malhas has no idea that you have used her as part of your misleading article. Shame on you… Please educate yourself.
    Because of this article I will not take the time to view your website, but seems to me that Femination could come up with a proactive, positive and informative article regarding the strides that the women of Saudi Arabia have made and continue making you may suprise yourself and readers. Guess what some women to hold public office positions. http://womennewsnetwork.net/2011/06/06/change-for-saudi-women/
    http://womennewsnetwork.net/2012/07/19/saudi-women-olympic-games/
    By the way, Im sure the women of the United States for example did not gain all their rights overnight… what some 72 years for the right to vote…

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