PtG Article 25.06.2012

Saudi Arabia may allow women to compete at the Olympics

Saudi women will be allowed to compete at the Olympics for the first time this summer in London, BBC reports. Human Rights Watch calls for broader reform in Saudi Arabia.

According to a statement from Saudi officials, the country’s Olympic Committee will "oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify," writes BBC.

With London 2012 taking off in a month’s time, the only female competitor expected to be able to qualify to compete is showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who competed in the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore under the IOC flag.

Allowing women to compete at the Olympics is a huge step for Saudi Arabia, a society where women are denied several basic rights, such as the right to drive, vote, hold public office and need permission from a male guardian to leave the country and open bank accounts, writes CNN.

There is little tradition of female sports as the country’s conservative religious bloc discourages this and the few women sports teams that do exist cannot compete in front of a mixed-gender spectator group. 

The new concession is a step in opening up for better rights for women. "It's very sensitive," a senior Saudi official told the BBC. "King Abdullah is trying to initiate reform in a subtle way, by finding the right balance between going too fast or too slow. 

"Partly because of the mounting criticism we woke up and realised we had to deal with this. We believe Saudi society will accept this," the official said.

Human Rights Watch calls for broader reformOne of the critics that have been speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to let women compete in the Olympics is Human Rights Watch. In February this year, the organisation sent out the report ‘Steps of the Devil’ on the denial of women’s and girls’ rights to sport in Saudi Arabia.  

This report found that private gyms for women had been banned and that physical education was not part of the school curriculum for women. The Saudi Olympic Committee does not have a women’s section and all of the country’s 153 official sports clubs are closed to women. 

In a new initiative by Human Rights Watch called ‘Let them Play’, the organisation calls on the IOC to enforce the Olympic Charter and make Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Olympics be conditioned on them following the charter which states that women must be allowed to compete. 

The campaign’s goal of getting Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete at the Olympics this summer seems to have been reaches, but the Human Rights Watch initiative have even broader aims of ensuring that women and girls in Saudi can practice sport in public schools, exercise, and compete in elite sport.

On its website, the campaign states that it wants Saudi Arabia go further and demonstrate that it is committed to human rights by also “adopting new policies that will create real, systemic change to benefit all Saudi women and girls.” These changes include:

  • Establishing a timeline and benchmarks for introducing physical education for girls in public and private schools. 
  • Allowing the creation of women’s gyms and sports clubs.
  • Creating women’s sections in the sports ministry and the National Olympic Committee.  

Find the Human Rights Watch campaign here

Read the report ‘Steps of the Devil’ here

SOURCES: BBC, CNN, Human Rights Watch