by Heather Cassell

Bowing to six months of ongoing international pressure, Saudi Arabia made a historic last minute move on July 12 announcing that two women athletes Wujdan Shahrkhani, in judo, and Sarah Attar, in track and field will compete in the 30th Olympic Summer Games in London.

The two women were entered by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee ahead of the July 9 deadline, reports Agence France-Presse.

The summer Olympic Games begin in London on July 27.

For months it was assumed that Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an award-winning equestrian, would represent Saudi Arabia, but she was unable to qualify due to an injury to her horse, reported EurosportTV.

Sarah, 19, has dual citizenship due to her Saudi Arabian father, who will compete in the 800 meters in London, a short run the long distance runner who has competed at Pepperdine University events that include 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Sara a sophomore art major at the university expresses being honored as the first women to represent Saudi Arabia at the 2012 Olympics, reports the New York Times.

“A big inspiration for participating in the 2012 Olympics for me is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” says Sarah, 19, in a video interview posted online by the IOC. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some good strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport.

“I definitely think that my participation in this Olympic Games can increase women’s participation in sports in general. I can only hope for the best for them and that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further and just in sports in general,” says Sarah a junior at Pepperdine University and a graduate of Escondido High School in California.

Girls That Roam was unable to obtain any information about Wujdan after multiple attempts.

Saudi Arabia is the last country to allow women to compete in the Olympics. Qatar and Brunei, which didn’t bar women from competing recently submitted women athletes to represent their countries at the Olympics in London, according to a Human Rights Watch July 11 news release.

Dalma Rushdi Malhas, Saudi Arabian equestrian, who won't be competing in this year's Olympic Games in London. (Photo Credit:
Dalma Rushdi Malhas, Saudi Arabian equestrian, who won’t be competing in this year’s Olympic Games in London. (Photo Credit:

“With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei Darussalam, it means that by London 2012 every National Olympic Committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games,” says Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, praising Saudi Arabia’s decision after negotiations between IOC and the kingdom’s sports chiefs, reports the Agence France-Presse.

Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher of HWR, agrees adding, “Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent.”

Let them Play

HRW’s objectives go beyond the Olympics, but to the heart of Saudi Arabia’s iron fist over Saudi women, especially those who are egger to play sports.

Christoph and his colleagues at HRW aren’t completely satisfied that Saudi Arabia entered two women to compete in this year’s Olympic Games in London, “without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities.”

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives of HRW agrees adding.

“It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules,” says Minky. “But an eleventh hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”

“The International Olympic Committee and the international sporting community cannot become complacent because one or two Saudi women are allowed to compete in the London Olympics,” she continues. “They should work tirelessly to ensure the millions of Saudi women and girls who want to participate in sports and public life are not denied the chance to do so.”

HRW, has kept a razor sharp eye Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women in sports and highly vocal with the launch of the organization’s Let Them Play campaign in conjunction with a report “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to sport in Saudi Arabia” in February. The aggressive campaign the organization has been waging was calling for the IOC and Saudi Arabia to allow Saudi Arabian women to compete in the Olympics this year or be disqualified based on the Olympic Charter. One of the five “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” bans “discrimination of any kind,” which includes discrimination against women, according to HWR.

Members of the Jeddah Kings United all-female team attend football exercise in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo Credit: AP Images)
Members of the Jeddah Kings United all-female team attend football exercise in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo Credit: AP Images)

Representatives of HRW and some officials in Saudi Arabia point out two of the advantages to allowing women to play sports are the fact that inactivity is “detrimental to Saudi public health” and playing sports is directly linked to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia officials are currently planning the national School Sports Strategy for 2011/2012, which advocates hope to influence on behalf of Saudi women.

Representatives of HWR calls upon the IOC to uphold its commitments to equality in sports and penalize Saudi Arabia by banning the kingdom from participating if the Saudi Arabia didn’t enter women athletes into the Olympics only got a lackluster response during the past six months.

In July 2011, Sandrine Tonge, an IOC spokesperson, says that the governing body of the Olympics “does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

The IOC wasn’t singing this tune 12 years ago, HRW representatives point out that in 1999, the Committee banned Afghanistan under the Taliban from participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics due, in part, to the Taliban’s discrimination against women in sport. South Africa was barred from participating in the Olympics from 1964 until 1990 due to apartheid and the country’s discrimination against black athletes, at the time. In both instances of the countries being barred from participating in the Olympics the IOC cited discriminating against blacks and barring women from sports violated the charter.

Francois Carrard, then-director-general of the IOC, explained the committee’s decision that “the Taliban-run National Olympic Committee, which among other things, prohibited women to compete in sports, [is in] violation of the Olympic Charter for discrimination in sport,” according to representatives of HRW.

After the fall of the Apartheid and Taliban, South African and Afghan athletes, including blacks and women, were readmitted to the Olympic Games.

Reluctant allowance

Saudi Arabian officials were reluctant to allow women to compete in the Olympics in London leading up to the submission, but leaders of the oil rich kingdom knew international eyes were upon them.

Inside Saudi Arabia, the issue of allowing women to compete in the Olympics this year to represent Saudi Arabia has been hotly contested in the Middle Eastern kingdom.

Saudi Arabian religious leaders warned against allowing women to participate in the Olympics eight months ago.

Al Eqtisadiah, grand mufti Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest official government authority, declared on Al Eqtisadiah, a Saudi television channel, “Women should be housewives,” and “There is no need for them to engage in sports.”

Some Saudi clerics have openly stated that they fear that once women engage in sports, they will shed modest Islamic dress and mingle unnecessarily with men, with some going as far as expressing that they perceive women engaging in sports can “cause them to lose their virginity,” reports HRW.

Other government clerics of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, like Shaikh Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Khudair, however, have decried women’s sports as “steps of the devil” leading to moral corruption, according to the human rights organization.

Last November, Mohammad al-Arifi, Ph.D., an influential Saudi cleric, warned Prince Nawwaf about sending women to the Olympics and suggested certain conditions:

“Women practicing sports … is fundamentally allowed … but if this leads to mixing with men … or revealing private parts … or men watching her sometimes run, sometimes fall down … sometimes laugh and sometimes cry or quarrel with another female athlete … or mount a horse … or practice gymnastics … or wrestling … or other sports … while the cameras film and the [television] channels broadcast … then there can be no doubt that it is forbidden.

Leading up to the admission of two women athletes to represent the Middle Eastern kingdom, Saudi officials denied a request for a women’s sporting event produced by She and He Sports, a new sporting publication launched on July 3, according to HRW. Two days after sending a request to produce the event to the sports minister and Olympic committee chairman, Prince Nawwaf bin Faisal, an official of the ministry informed the publication that the ministry didn’t approve. In spite of complying with Sharia requirements and Saudi Arabia’s laws, a representative of the publication’s told HRW. The event was cancelled.

Saudi Arabia has strict laws segregating men and women and that treat women as minors and property, according to another HRW report “Perpetual Minors” published in 2008. Women have to get permission to play sports, be fully covered while playing, and that is only the beginning. Officials have outright denied women the right to sports or simple physical activity by refusing to build or license facilities, with the exception of “health centers,” that are often attached to hospitals are allowed to “cater to women wanting to exercise,” according to the report exposing the state of women’s athletics in Saudi Arabia.

Playing sports for competition or recreation is a serious challenge for Saudi women. Sports experts are limited to men and membership fees are often beyond average girls and women’s means. There is no physical education offered to girls in the state schools and “inferior quality physical education” in the private schools that offer such programs. None of Saudi Arabia’s 153 youth ministry-supported sports clubs have a women’s team. Only the Jeddah United, a private sports company, “boasts of women’s basketball teams, while other women’s soccer teams train informally and play in underground leagues,” the representatives of HRW document in the 51-page report after extensive interviews with Saudi girls and women and sporting experts and officials.

Beginning movement

However, the tide appears to be shifting in favor of women competing at the Olympics and more important playing sports in Saudi Arabia.
Some Saudi clerics disagree with their peers. They view that sports for women is a “religious necessity, especially in light of increased rates of obesity and related diseases,” reports HRW.

Saudi Arabia’s obesity rates and related diseases – such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease – have been growing, particularly among women, in recent years. Between two-thirds to three quarters of Saudi Arabian adults and 25 to 40 percent of children and adolescents are estimated to be overweight or obese, HRW cited an article published by Obesity Review in 2011.

Fierce Saudi Arabian woman footballer going for the goal. (Photo Credit:
Fierce Saudi Arabian woman footballer going for the goal. (Photo Credit:

Media advocate She and He Sports features articles by Saudi men and women who support women in sports, such as Dr. Laila al-Ahdab, a medical practitioner and social worker, who affirmed on July 3 that “women have an Islamic legal right to practice swimming. He was joined by Saudi film actress Marwa Muhammad and social critic Dr. Husna’ al-Qunai’ir on June 19 and July 7, respectively, in an alliance supporting women in sports. Husna’ challenged the Education Ministry for its “prevarication on introducing physical education for girls in school” and Marwa publicly stated that “football is an entertaining sport suitable for both genders … and it has not and will not be a shame” for women to play, reports HRW.

Saudi girls and women can dare to dream about competitive sports as there are no competitions and no state support for Saudi sportswomen in regional or international competitions.

There are a few girls and women who accept the dare to dream.

More girls and women are “anxious to play sports,” says an unidentified representative of She and He Sports.

An unidentified Saudi woman who is a footballer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, told HRW in a July 12 news release that “she is hopeful that Saudi women’s participation in the Olympic Games will open up sporting possibilities for women inside the kingdom.”

Many girls and women are exercising at home or in a few expensive gyms or participating in underground women-only leagues, according to HRW experts.

“Any women who wants to participate, I say go for it and don’t let anyone to hold you back. We all have the potentially to get out there and get moving,” says Sara.

Ultimately, that is HRW’s goal.

“We don’t care too much about the Olympics; we care about allowing women to play at home,” the representative tells HRW, but lack of official support makes practicing sports extremely difficult.

“The movement toward ending discrimination against women and girls in Saudi Arabia is like a relay race, and participation of female Saudi athletes in the Olympics would amount to winning the first leg of the race,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of HRW, in a March 23 news release. “For this race to be a true victory, the Saudi government needs to make genuine and immediate strides toward ending discrimination against women in sport.”

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