Saudi Arabia has finally cleared the air on the issue of female participation in the 2012 London Olympics. The announcement, just over a week ago, by the Saudi Embassy in London said that “the kingdom will permit women to compete in the London Olympics — provided they qualify and that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games”.
The statement said: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games.”
A senior official in the sports authority of the country, who requested anonymity citing “the sensitivity of the issue”, had suggested last week that an announcement on the first-ever participation of Saudi women was supposed to have come from the kingdom some days ago, but was postponed after the death of the late crown prince, Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz.
Although the announcement may have relieved some of the pressures on Saudi Arabia from human rights groups and others, there are some who suspect that the late announcement was just a manoeuvre to buy time and avoid direct action in the form of a ban by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the non-participation of females in international sporting event.
The IOC itself was facing flak from various rights groups and was under pressure to bar the Saudis from participating in the London Games if they would not lift the ban on allowing women athletes participate, which is a clear violation of the IOC’s anti-discrimination laws.
There were immediate reactions from abroad as well. Minky Worden, a director at Human Rights Watch, said: “It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules, but an eleventh-hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”
Another charged that: “They’re only doing it so they don’t get banned from the Olympics. This is progress, but it is not much progress. It’s a victory for tokenism and doing the bare minimum to satisfy a toothless IOC.”
Britain’s Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow was more critical, saying that Saudi Arabia’s decision last week released the pressure on the IOC “by allowing the fiction that in some way the Saudis are allowing women generally to compete for a place in the Olympics.
“The IOC took a lot more aggressive approach when it came to South Africa’s attempt to field a ‘whites-only team’ in the 1960s and banned them from the Olympics in 1964.
“For some reason, these days, the IOC sees no comparison between the racial discrimination in South Africa then and today’s gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia,” Snow stated.
Some sceptics point to statements from as recent as April of this year by the president of the Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal, who clearly stated that he did not “endorse female participation of Saudi Arabia at the present time in the Olympics”.
He had said that female participation had not been approved by the country’s leaders and that Saudi-based women travelling to London would be contrary to the country’s traditions and norms.
There have been mixed signals coming on this issue for months. We heard “yes” and then we heard “no”. While some sports officials declared that they had been working with the IOC on an acceptable agreement, others in the kingdom were publicly denying the possibility of female athletes competing in the Olympics.
This flip-flop on Olympic participation can perhaps trace its roots to the religious views of some clerics, including the country’s Grand Mufti who asserted that “women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports”.
The belief that women will be disgraced if they turn to athletics is ingrained in conservative culture and religious thinking which emphasises that allowing freedom of movement for women would make them vulnerable to sin and that includes the sporting arena.
Many suspect that it is the fear of a backlash from the conservative religious establishments that had held sports officials from being more forthcoming on this issue. It was only when the IOC began to feel the heat from different quarters that pressure intensified on the Saudi Olympic Committee and they waited until the last possible minute when there was no realistic chance of fielding any female athletes in the Games that the announcement came. This way, a confrontation with the extremists was avoided as well.
Although the IOC President, Jacques Rogge, said he was confident Saudi Arabian female athletes would be among those in the Olympic Games, many do not share his optimism, claiming that the decision was too little and too late.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.