Saudi women in the Olympics – a true reflection of “progress”?

A lot has been made this year about the fact that Saudi women were finally allowed to join the Saudi Olympic team. However, I have difficulty being excited or encouraged by this step “forward”, for many reasons.

First, I think it must be obvious to everyone that this was just a symbolic move to appease the International Olympic Committee and save Saudi Arabia (and the IOC) from embarrassment. With all the loud and strenuous calls for Saudi Arabia to be banned from these games (dating as far back as 2008), I am sure that the Saudis did not want to end up on the same page in the history books as South Africa’s apartheid governments. (South Africa was the only country ever to be banned from the Olympics.) And of course, Saudi Arabia is no patsy on the world’s economic and political stage, so it probably wouldn’t have been very strategic for the IOC (and its friends) to get into a tiff with the Saudis.

Second, I couldn’t help but smirk when I read this quote from Sarah Attar (one of the female Saudi Olympians, who by the way was born and raised in California), “… I hope that it can really make some good strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport.” Is she implying that Saudi women are currently not involved enough in sports because they don’t have the self-motivation and initiative to do so? Even if a girl or woman wanted to do exercise or play sports, where could she go? And to get to an elite level, who’s going to train her? (The other Saudi female Olympian, judo athlete Wojdan Shahrkhani, was coached by her father who is an international judo referee. She has never competed at an international level.) I don’t see how having these two women on the Saudi Olympic team is going to do anything for the participation of Saudi women in sport, unless there are major changes in the school and community/social systems in Saudi Arabia. Just earlier this month, Saudi authorities had denied permission for a women’s sports tournament to take place (no reason for the denial was given).  And unfortunately, there are loud voices from within Saudi that are resorting to the internet to spread hateful messages about Saudi female athletes. Hopefully, the many voices countering these messages will continue to grow stronger and louder.

Third, before we Westerners get up on our high-horse about the backwardness of the Saudi attitude towards sports and women, let’s not forget that there’s still a long way to go in our society when it comes to attitudes about women and sport. It was only this year that all the sports in the Summer Olympics will have both men and women’s events. Even just 2 years ago at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, we heard much about the court battle to force the IOC to include women’s ski jumping (the court refused to hear the case). And there are so many other examples, in the Olympics and throughout professional and amateur sport, where the type of media focus greatly differs depending on whether the coverage is on the male or the female athletes (e.g. recent example about beach volleyball players at the London Olympics).

Hmm, progress? Seems like we could all use some.

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2 responses to “Saudi women in the Olympics – a true reflection of “progress”?

  1. I think young Saudi girls seeing these two brave women participate, even if just for symbolic purposes, will bring progress to women’s sports in Saudi..How I see it is, those girls will get inspired and ask their parents to start a sport, although not many are available, there are sports they can do now. The more demand, the more facilities and the more options..later maybe national competitions, trained coaches from abroad coming in..in the long run, female athletes and some who will themselves become trainers and leaders in women’s sports in KSA.

    • I disagree with you Laylah. I know for a fact that it is a political decision not a social one for the Saudis to allow women on their Olympic team. The Saudi government definitely does not have the political will on their own to do that – this was done only under pressure from the IOC and to try to save the image of Saudi government. The Saudi government has been brainwashing Western media for decades. They appear as struggling to open up “the conservative Saudi society”. In fact, it is the Saudi government who is resisting the social reform. In totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, goverments lead people in all aspects of their life including their social life activities. Also, they selected 2 women who are hardly representative of Saudis – one lives in the US with her American mother and the other one comes from a family who are relativey new immigrants to Saudi Arabia (by that, I mean that the family is not originally Saudi)- I think this has a negtive impact on the Saudi girls. This is telling them that only those women are the one who can participate. This is like allowing western women driving in Aramco for the past 50 years or building a co-ed university separated from the main cities (KAUST). These are all ‘exceptions’, not the rule, and not an example for the majority of Saudi girls.

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