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Following Outcry and Confusion, Saudi Arabia to Send Female Contestants to Olympics


In this May 21, 2012 photo, members of a Saudi female soccer team including captain Rawh Abdullah, left, Rana Al Khateeb, center, and American Mawada Chaballout, right, practice at a secret location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While Olympic leaders and human rights advocates are encouraged by signs that Saudi Arabia may bow to pressure and send female athletes to the Summer Games, women athletes in the ultraconservative kingdom are worried about a backlash at home.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

After months of speculation about whether Saudi Arabia would field its first Olympic female competitors this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed on Thursday that the conservative Middle Eastern kingdom will include two women in its London 2012 contingent.

The two Saudi citizens are Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in track and judo respectively.

IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement that he sees their inclusion as “very positive news.”

But the path to this point has been a twisted one –  and commentators still question both the sincerity and significance of the sudden policy shift, though it appears on the surface to signify progress for the kingdom and appease its critics.

Prior to this announcement, activists had been placing pressure on the IOC to demand that Saudi Arabia send female contestants to the Olympics, arguing that a refusal to do so stands in violation of the Olympic Charter.

"The IOC needs to send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that they will not tolerate continued gender discrimination," Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the UK-based Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, told The Guardian in April.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Washington-based think tank called the Institute for Gulf Affairs ran a ‘No Women No Play campaign,’ highlighting Saudi policies that deny women the full rights of citizenship. The campaign issued a statement in June that called the Saudi treatment of women ‘gender apartheid’ and condemned the IOC's cooperation with Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia’s assumed decision to send yet another all-male contingent to the Olympics, and tacit IOC approval of that plan, also raised questions about whether the kingdom was being held to the same standards as other states. In 2000, for instance, the IOC excluded Afghanistan from the Sydney Olympics due to the Taliban regime’s policies towards women, and apartheid South Africa was not permitted to compete from 1964 right up to 1992.

Yet Saudi Arabia, a key Western ally and major player in determining oil prices, has not faced comparable consequences for its policies toward women — in the sports arena and beyond. Women are not permitted to drive in the kingdom and are banned from entering all-male national sporting trials, a regulation that almost obliterates their chance of qualifying for international sporting events.

Now that the Saudi Olympic Committee has announced that two women will compete, some believe that change is on the horizon. Media reports note that King Abdullah, whose reign began in 2005, has been credited with bringing in liberal changes, such as granting women the right to vote and promising to appoint female members to his Consultative Council.

Wider developments affecting women on the ground remain elusive. And the bizarre way in which Saudi female participation at London 2012 was confirmed does not indicate a clear progressive stance.

Indeed, numerous mixed signals from Saudi authorities, including a suggestion over the weekend that no female athletes would be competing at the Games, have only served to confuse those following the issue.

Three months ago, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and a member of the Saudi royal family, said that he and his committee were “not endorsing any Saudi female participation at the moment in the Olympics or other international championships.”

But in June, it seemed the kingdom had a change of heart. Saudi officials announced that the nation’s Olympic Committee would “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify.” 
That shift in policy was announced on the same day that the one female Saudi athlete then widely considered capable of competing at the Games, show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was found to have fallen short of the mark set by the Fédération Équestre Internationale, the international governing body of equestrian sports.

Human rights advocates saw the timing of the two announcements as more calculated than coincidental, labeling it proof that the apparent new leniency towards female athletes was a move made only once the kingdom was certain that no Saudi women would qualify.

“It is 100 percent the case they knew she couldn’t compete when they made the announcement,” said Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. 
The FEI's scheduling suggested that she was correct: The Telegraph reported that the kingdom’s statement came over a week after June 17, the date by which Malhas had to qualify by international equestrian standards.

Worden called the Saudi announcement “total spin for the West.”

Now that the Saudi Olympic Committee has entered two female competitors, the Human Rights Watch official has had to eat her words.

On Thursday, Worden called the Saudi decision to send two female competitors “an important precedent…[that] will be hard for Saudi hard-liners to roll back.”

Meanwhile, mainstream media reports lauded the decision, noting that it makes London 2012 the first Olympic Games to feature female athletes from every participating country..

Yet Worden cautioned that gender discrimination condoned and enforced by the state remains a “fundamental problem” in Saudi Arabia. And a number of commentators and activists agree with her.

Bahrain-based political analyst Mona Abass told the Huffington Post that the decision to send female contestants “changes little.”

“They send two women to the Olympics and at home they don’t allow women’s sports clubs and physical education in girls’ schools,” Saudi activist Khulud al-Fahd said in an email to Bloomberg Businessweek. “The women were allowed to go just so Saudi Arabia won’t be banned from the Olympics.”

The specific backgrounds of the athletes the kingdom has deemed qualified have been contentious in their own right. Prior to the government's final decision, academic and journalist Nabila Ramdani noted in Australian newspaper The Age that the lifestyle of the then-favored Malhas hardly resembles the one shared by most Saudi Arabian women who face the consequences of institutionalized gender discrimination.

“Malhas fits the bill perfectly – not, unfortunately, because she is representative of downtrodden Saudi women, but because she is an American-born, London-educated multi-millionaire’s daughter who conforms to the glamorous, internationalist image her massively wealthy country strives to portray abroad,” Ramdani wrote.

Malhas’ mother, also a show-jumper, told The Guardian she herself had to travel abroad to compete as a Saudi rider during her career. The family was based in Italy for years, she added, and Malhas received training there.

The two athletes Saudi Arabia has now settled on may not be quite as glamorous, but they too have led lives that afford them unique privileges compared to women within the kingdom.

Attar, the track star, attends Pepperdine University in southern California, and was born and raised in the U.S. Her statement on the IOC website originates from a training camp in San Diego.

Media reports are split on Shahrkhani’s origins, with The Journal quoting an IOC spokesperson who asserted that the judo contestant trained in Saudi Arabia while the Huffington Post contends that she lives outside the kingdom and “carr[ies] almost no influence” as a sports figure there.

Few details are available about the two athletes, the IOC spokesperson said. Part of this mystery surrounding the athletes and their qualification may be linked to the lack of Saudi media coverage about their selection, a factor the Huffington Post suggested could indicate that the kingdom is still unwilling to trumpet women’s participation as a step forward in actual Saudi territory.

Were Attar and Shahrkhani based in Saudi Arabia itself, it is unlikely that they would have been able to cultivate the level of sporting prowess that will be showcased at the Olympics in two weeks. A Washington Post story about female athletes inside the kingdom explained that few Saudi women have such opportunities.

Rawh Abdullah, the captain of a soccer team in Riyadh, decried the double standards for Saudi women living abroad and those in the kingdom itself.

“It’s a pity for us. We play sports in Saudi Arabia, but they get to compete abroad because our country does not want to give us a chance to prove ourselves,” she told the Post, speaking before the announcement of Attar and Shahrkhani as Saudi Olympic competitors but during the period when Malhas seemed a likely representative.

Ahmed al-Marzooqi, a sports journalist in the kingdom, agreed once he heard about his government's final decision to field the two women.

"I should be happy for them,” he told the Huffington Post, “but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sport in Saudi Arabia.”

Akbar Ahmed is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.

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