Saudi Women at Olympics: A Major Breakthrough
Saudi Arabia announced on 12 July, just two weeks before the start of the Olympics, that it will send two women to compete in judo and track and field, making Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar the first Saudi women to compete in the Olympic games.
For decades now, most Muslim-majority countries have allowed women to play and compete in sports, and have had female athletes compete in the Olympics. Today, Saudi Arabia is following suit.
The announcement came after months of pressure on Saudi Arabia and negotiations between it and the International Olympics Committee. Because of the lack of Saudi women competitors, the entire Saudi national team was threatened with being barred from participating in the games. For Saudi Arabia, a country that has banned its women and girls from playing sports, finding women with Olympic level training was a long stretch. Only a few days before this announcement, the Saudi National Olympic Committee had told the press that it could not find a single woman qualified to compete.
The simple act of allowing women to participate in the Olympics this year was a big step. Hopefully, letting women compete in the Olympics will finally open doors for women and girls who want to participate in physical education classes in school, be able to exercise in gyms, play team sports – and have a greater chance of competing in future Olympics themselves.
Saudi women athletes face several hurdles. For women, physical education is allowed only in private schools. Gyms for women are called “health clubs” because an establishment under the name “gym for women” cannot be licensed. Women are not allowed to play in official sports clubs or even watch matches in stadiums, and games between girls football, volleyball and basketball teams in private schools and colleges are held secretly.
In Saudi Arabia, the problem with female athletes is not related to religion, but rather to traditions, cultural norms and laws that govern women’s participation in any kind of public activity. Society is generally conservative when it comes to gender relations, and there are requirements that women wear the veil, work places be gender segregated and women not drive.
Nevertheless, as with other issues facing women in Saudi Arabia, there has been progress over the past few years.
There have been calls by health professionals, educators and parents to allow sports for girls in schools for health reasons and the Ministry of Education recently said that it is considering introducing physical education in girls’ schools.
Saudi women are eager to participate in sports and exercise. Many women go walking for exercise or join “health clubs” to stay fit. Others play tennis, basketball, football or ride horses. If more sports facilities were open to women, more would likely be inclined and better able to participate.
In 2008 Arwa Mutabagani was the first Saudi woman to be appointed as a top sports administrator, at the Equestrian Federation. In 2006, Jeddah United Sports Company, a rare women’s exercise club that runs a female basketball team, was founded by two sisters. And in 2010, show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was the first Saudi woman to compete in the Youth Olympics in Singapore where she won a bronze medal.
Accepting Shahrkhani and Attar as part the Saudi team to the Olympics, regardless of how they perform, should inspire and encourage many girls – from Saudi Arabia and other countries – to take up sports. In order to avoid the same last-minute search for qualified female athletes for the next Olympics, Saudi authorities should take the necessary steps to make the right facilities and training available for aspiring female athletes. This will be another noteworthy step towards equality for Saudi women.
Maha Akeel is a Saudi journalist.