Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz has said women can represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics this summer as long as they don't contradict Islamic laws, a sign of change after human rights activists campaigned against the exclusion of Saudi women from sports.
But Human Rights Watch, which has lobbied the International Olympic Committee to make sure Saudi Arabia includes women in athletics, says sending a few women to the Games doesn’t solve the problem.
“You cannot pull a token woman out of your hat to say everything is hunky-dory,” said Christoph Wilcke, the lead researcher behind a scathing Human Rights Watch report on female athletes in Saudi Arabia. “This is a good step -- but we need to start a sporting culture for women in Saudi Arabia.”
His report last month laid out obstacles Saudi women face in playing sports. They include public schools not holding gym classes for girls and the government shuttering private gyms for women, allowing only “health clubs” that are too expensive for many women and offer fewer activities. The report argued that Saudi Arabian rules were incompatible with the Olympic charter banning discrimination.
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries that have never sent a woman to the Olympics. The IOC has been in talks with the country over including women, but has shied away from ultimatums or deadlines that would hitch Saudi involvement in the Games to changing its ways.
Media reports from Saudi Arabia have indicated that female athletes might be sent to the Summer Olympics in London to compete in riflery or horseback riding. Last week, the group was given a list of Saudi women who might participate, to be studied by the IOC to assess the readiness of the athletes.
A formal proposal is expected in May.
“The IOC is confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the International Federations’ rules,” the group wrote in a statement on its website Monday.
In addition, a Saudi female sports commentator and amateur soccer coach, Reema Abdullah, will be one of the 8,000 people to carry the Olympic torch, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
With little access to athletics for girls in Saudi Arabia, it's possible that Saudi women living elsewhere might be tapped to represent the country in the Games. One of the names that has been floated is Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping at the Youth Olympics two years ago but who grew up in Italy and lives mostly in France.
Wilcke noted that there was one sign of broader change: One article in the Saudi media quoted a lawmaker saying they were ready to implement physical education for girls “soon.”
“It’s a strong signal,” he said. “But there’s still no time line and we’ve heard these promises before.”
Being blocked from sports is just one of many barriers faced in Saudi Arabia, where women were only recently given the right to vote. Saudi women are still banned from driving and must get permission from a male guardian to work, study, travel or marry.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Members of the Jidda Kings United all-female soccer team attend exercises in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Coach Reema Abdullah is seen adjusting her head scarf. Credit: Associated Press / Courtesy of Reema Abdullah