Saudi Arabia's Olympic Paradox: Insulting Women, Islam and "Prostitutes"

I cannot celebrate Saudi's female Olympians who will compete while millions of their Saudi sisters back home watch, all the while being told that the women on tv are "prostitutes," and that they are exceptions to the rules that oppress the masses.
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In London, two Saudi women are set to participate in the Olympics today. But back in Saudi Arabia, millions of Saudi women and girls are effectively banned from practicing sports inside the Kingdom. Also, they aren't allowed to drive, although there is no law stipulating that.

Wujdan Sharkhani, the Saudi judoka banned from wearing the hijab head scarf when she competes at the Olympic games, and Sarah Attar will not take a trophy home as they were invited to compete under a "universality" clause that allows athletes without qualifying times to participate "for reasons of equality."

Still, by sending these two women to London under the guise of progress, Saudi Arabia will indeed be taking a trophy home for once again proving that among its Arab neighbors, when it comes to blatant backwardness, hypocrisy and systemic gender discrimination, it takes home the gold, and then some.

I grew up in the Arab world with two older sisters, both of whom participated in sports beginning as little girls. My oldest sister played tennis and ran cross-country competitively. My other sister, Luma, grew up playing soccer competitively and would go on to help found the first women's soccer team at one of the Arab world's premier universities -- the American University of Beirut.

My Arab mother raised me to respect both women and men as equal. It is one thing to segment your society and prevent gender-mixing, but to prevent women from exercising and participating in team sports in 2012 and to justify it with the importance of adhering to Sharia law, obtaining a male family member's approval and dressing modestly is insulting to women, Islam and the Olympics.

What is worse, on July 5 2012, Saudi Arabia's sports ministry denied a request by private citizens to hold a women's Ramadan sports tournament that would have included basketball, volleyball and football.

Less than a week later, with just under two weeks before the start of the Olympics, Saudi Arabia reluctantly ended its status as the last Olympic nation to refuse to send women athletes to compete.

Saudi Arabia's international attempt to save face is as pathetic as it is paradoxical.

Human Rights Groups may have forced Saudi Arabia's hand, after spending many months demanding that Saudi's male athletes be banned from the games so long as the government refused to allow women to compete. Eventually, the government gave in.

But unlike Qatar, another Arab state that is sending women to the Olympics for the first time, Saudi Arabia continues to be the only country in the world to prevent girls from taking part in sports in government schools. Qatar on the other hand is also building a high performance training center aimed at involving women in sports and has boasted a Women's Sport Committee for over a decade. Saudi Arabia still segregates and oppresses women in society, which includes preventing them from playing sports, not providing any state sports infrastructure for women and marginalizing them from participating in public life.

On Twitter, the anticipation around Sharkhani and Attar's participation has prompted a hashtag to emerge in Saudi Arabia that describes the women as the "Prostitutes of the Olympics".

Ahmed Al Omran, a famous Saudi blogger and a friend, shared this tweet featuring a list of all Saudi athletes that will compete in London. In it he notes that Sarah Attar appears without a headscarf on the Olympics website.

Ahmed also points out that Saudi's most senior sports official Prince Nawaf bin Faisal said the women can only participate if they "wear suitable clothing that complies with Sharia law, are accompanied by their guardian... and they do not mix with men during the games..."

The offensive Arabic hashtag, #عاهرات_الاولمبياد, has also prompted a backlash.

@SkittlesFairy writes in Arabic: "You remind me of Europe in the Dark Ages, you insult this and slur people in the name of religion. This religion has nothing to do with you."

Saudi Arabia is America's closest Arab ally. In 1951, our close strategic relationship was marked with the signing of a mutual defense agreement and the establishment of a permanent US Military Training Mission.

On October 20,2010, the State Department made the biggest arms sale in US history to Saudi Arabia -- an estimated 60 billion -- to help curb Iran's growing influence in the region. While relationships have seemingly strained in light of the Arab uprisings and specifically the women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia, neither side can afford to lose the other amidst the region's unfinished revolutions across North Africa.

Secretary Clinton celebrated Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize as a "shining example of the difference that women can make and the progress they can help achieve when given the opportunity to make decisions about the future of their societies and countries." But what about the example Saudi Arabia sets in denying millions of Saudi women the same opportunity Clinton describes?

To be fair, after months of quiet diplomacy, Clinton eventually broke her silence and supported Saudi women like Manal al Sharif, who have protested against the ban on women driving, even at the cost of being imprisoned and ruining what is often described as the only thing that matters in Saudi society for women, "your reputation."

"What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them," Clinton said last June. "I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves, seeking to be recognized."

But our government has enjoyed our close relationship with Saudi Arabia while refraining from criticizing the widespread human rights violations and inequality. Meanwhile, criticism of Iran on gender discrimination and other violations are plentiful.

We as Americans should be embarrassed that our closest ally in the region is not just the most conservative, but the most oppressive, to women, other minorities and citizens wanting to exercise their free will.

A Saudi female friend of mine from the Eastern Province, pointed out that Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam is incorrect.

"To me it is a contradiction to Islam itself. The prophet said teach your children 3 things, archery, swimming and riding horse," she told me. "Archery for being self-sufficient and getting food, riding horses for mobility and swimming for sport."

She said that today's modern world equivalent -- getting a job, driving cars and sports in general -- are still restricted from millions of women.

But she is right to point out that this is not simply about religion or culture. It is also about health. One in four Saudis has type 2 diabetes due to his/her lifestyle. More than 50 percent of the population is overweight and the percentage is even higher for women.

"It baffles me that given these statistics, Saudi isn't moving quickly to introduce physical activity into society, starting with women," she said.

"Especially since health care is free and the government is flipping the bill. It is not just unfair... it is plain stupid."

She also described to me how she never had a single Physical Education class in school and that when she recently went on a mountain climb abroad with a group, they were called "loose women," "on the path to hell," and "whores".

To ban women from participating in sports is unhealthy and backwards and we should not let it stand in 2012, especially if we are throwing billions of dollars at Saudi's authoritarian government.

This year, millions of Arabs, particularly the youth, have taken to the streets to demand reforms, the right to self-determination, and eventually equality under the law. Women were at the forefront of protests in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Bahrain and across the region.

I will celebrate the fact that Qatar has sent women to compete in the Olympics for the first time. I can also celebrate Brunei, another nation that has sent its first women to compete in London, as it has previously supported women's participation in sports domestically. But I cannot celebrate Saudi's female Olympians who will compete while millions of their Saudi sisters back home watch, all the while being reminded that the women on TV are "prostitutes," and merely two exceptions to the rules that oppress the masses.

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