Saudi Arabia will allow female Olympians but barriers remain

MalhasThough Saudi Arabia will allow women to take part in the London Olympics for the first time, barriers to its female athletes remain so steep that only one woman is likely to go.

That athlete is Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an equestrian show jumper who grew up in Italy and lives mostly in France. Malhas won a bronze medal at the Youth Olympics two years ago without the official backing of her country. She was trained outside of Saudi Arabia for much of her life.

Saudi officials have gone back and forth this year over whether Saudi women would be officially supported as Olympic contenders. Human Rights Watch and other groups pressed the International Olympic Committee to demand Saudi Arabia include women if it wanted to take part in the games.

In March, a Saudi prince said women could compete in the games as long as they didn’t defy Islamic laws, but in April, the Saudi sports minister declared that “female sports activity has not existed and there is no change in this regard.” The country would not block women from competing, he said, but would not officially endorse them.

"The reality is there are virtually no Saudi sportswomen up to Olympic standards," an editorial in the Saudi Gazette argued at the time. "It is ridiculous, and frankly malevolent, wanting to punish Saudi Arabia now for something that is beyond its control."

Human rights groups argued that keeping women out flouted the Olympic Charter against discrimination. The matter was settled on Sunday, just weeks before the London Olympics are to begin, when the Saudi embassy in London announced that the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee “will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games.”

“The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee is working in a close and constructive cooperation with the international Olympic Committee to achieve this participation,” it added.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei will also send female athletes to the games for the first time this summer, the International Olympic Committee reported last month.

Human Rights Watch called it "an important step" but cautioned that Saudi women are still effectively banned from sports in the strictly religious nation. The government has shuttered private gyms for women, allowing only expensive and limited “health clubs.” Religious leaders have condemned sports as “steps of the devil” that will lead women to immorality. Girls are still restricted from sports in school.

“An 11th hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia,” its director of global initiatives Minky Worden said Monday.

Sports are far from the only area where Saudi women face obstacles: Though Saudi women were granted the right to vote and run for office last year, they are still heavily restricted in daily life, banned from driving and dependent on men's permission to work, travel or study.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Dalma Rushdi Malhas of Saudi Arabia rides Flash Top Hat at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games on Aug. 24, 2010. Credit: Xiang Mei / European Pressphoto Agency

 
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