Olympics: For Saudi Women, Only a Starting Line

Olympics: For Saudi Women, Only a Starting Line
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(London) – The participation of two Saudi female athletes in the London Olympics is an important first step but does not go far enough in addressing entrenched problems of gender discrimination in the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi Arabia should end the effective ban preventing millions of women and girls from practicing sports inside the kingdom.

Two female athletes will represent Saudi Arabia: Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field. Attar, who lives and trains outside the kingdom, has said, “I hope it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the women were invited to compete under the “universality” clause, which allows athletes who do not meet qualifying times to compete when their participation is deemed important “for reasons of equality.”

“That two women will compete for the Saudi team for the first time in the history of the Olympics is a first step,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch “But the race for gender equality in Saudi Arabia cannot be won until the millions of women and girls who are now deprived of athletic opportunities can also exercise their right to practice sports.”

On July 5, 2012, an official from the Saudi sports ministry denied a request by private citizens to hold a women’s Ramadan sports tournament featuring basketball, volleyball, and football (soccer). The organizers had said the event would “comply with Sharia requirements and national laws, such as non-mixing of genders, [obtaining] guardians’ approval, and compliance with modest dress.” The Sports Ministry official gave no reason for denying permission for the tournament.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men.

The ban on women’s private, for-fee and fully equipped sports clubs has forced women to largely restrict themselves to “health” facilities, usually attached to hospitals that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports. Membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls.

Official sporting bodies hold no competitive sports events for Saudi women athletes in the kingdom and do not support Saudi sportswomen in regional or international competitions.

These forms of gender discrimination clearly violate the Olympic Charter, which states in the 6 Fundamental Principle of Olympism that “any form of discrimination,” including on the basis of gender, is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records on women’s rights, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented, including in the report “Perpetual Minors.” The government does not allow women to drive, and it enforces a male guardianship system that treats women as minors in all aspects of life. In addition, there is strict gender segregation in public, limiting women’s freedom to leave the house, to work, to participate in public life, to government offices, to courts, or to seek medical treatment.

“Saudi women and girls cannot play sports – and they cannot even watch sports in stadiums,” Worden said.

Human Rights Watch has long urged the IOC to use its leverage with Saudi Arabia to get the country’s sports leaders to conform to the values and principles of the Olympic Movement by adopting policies that will benefit all Saudi women and girls including:

• Establishing a timeline and benchmarksfor introducing physical education as a mandatory subject for girls in public and private schools.

• Allowing the creation of women’s gyms and sports clubs.

• Creating women’s sectionsin the sports ministry (General Presidency for Youth Welfare) and the National Olympic Committee.

“The world should cheer Wujdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar as they make history in London, but we must also remember millions of women and girls inside Saudi Arabia who can only watch from the sidelines,” Worden said. “The IOC can move the ball down the field for women’s sports by making it clear for future Olympics that if you don’t play by the rules, you should not play at all.”

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