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.
- Saudi female athletes fear crackdown after London (kansascity.com)
- Why No Saudi Women Qualify for the Olympic Games (theatlanticwire.com)
- Saudi Arabia’s unacceptable failure to field female athletes for the Olympics | Minky Worden (guardian.co.uk)