Members of the Jidda Kings United all-female team practice soccer in Jidda,… (Reema Abdullah / Associated…)
Just when you thought Saudi Arabia might be edging its way into the 21st century—or even the late 20th—the country’s sports minister dispelled that notion with the disappointing and troubling announcement that no women will officially represent the country at the 2012 Olympics. Only last week, Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz had said women could represent Saudi Arabia as long as their participation did not conflict with Islamic laws. But at a Wednesday news conference in Jidda, Prince Nawaf Faisal, the sports minister, was quoted by Human Rights Watchas saying “At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”
Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries that have never sent female athletes to the Olympics. The other two are Brunei and Qatar. But both countries have sent female athletes to other international events, and Qatar officials said they hope to send women to the Olympics this year.
Saudi Arabia is notorious for its repressive restrictions on women (they are forbidden to drive), and the official approach to athletics and physical education is separate and very unequal. There are no national teams for women and few athletic facilities for women, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch this year.
As the editorial board wrote in February, there is no Koranic justification for banning women from sports, and other predominantly Muslim countries have sent women athletes to the Olympics. With the release of the Human Rights Watch report and urging from the International Olympic Committee, it seemed possible that Saudi Arabia would take this opportunity to send even one or two female Saudi athletes to the Olympics. For instance, there are Saudi women living elsewhere who are competitive athletes and might have represented the country at the games.
The International Olympic Committee, which has a charter denouncing discrimination, should consider ramping up pressure on Saudi Arabia to map out a game plan for developing female athletes — if Saudi Arabia wants to continue to be part of the Olympic tradition. But more important, the country needs to make athletic facilities and physical education widely available to men and women, boys and girls. It’s matter of equality and health, and there is no excuse to implement overdue changes.
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