Thanks to camelman for sharing this with me …
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.
It’s been about a year since the Women2Drive campaign was launched with Manal al-Sharif getting behind the wheel of a car and driving in the streets of Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia.
A couple of weeks ago, she was honored as one of the awardees of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Here is the video of her talk in Oslo:
Although relatively short at only about 15 minutes, I found her speech to be very compelling and providing real insight into the foundations for what is going on now in Saudi society. (And I’ll never listen to the Backstreet Boys in the same way again!) Also not to be overlooked is the fact that here is a Saudi woman not only showing her face, but having it broadcast all over the Internet. She is trailblazing a path for Saudi women in more ways than one.
I also found it interesting that to-date, there have been so many ‘dislikes’ vs. ‘likes’ on the YouTube page of her video. Obviously it seems that there are yet to be many battles to be waged on many fronts here.
If you remember from an earlier post, there used to be certain hours where singles (males) could and could not enter the mall. Some relief for the shabaabs (شباب, i.e. the youth) now, since last month, the governor of Riyadh announced that single males would “not be prevented” from going to shopping malls during peak hours.
Now, the mall is probably the last place most guys I know would want to hang out, but in Saudi Arabia, where there’s not much to do, it’s the place to be. Isn’t that kind of sad? When one wants to “go out” in Saudi Arabia, you’re pretty much relegated to restaurants and coffee shops … and shawarma places … and you could always go for a walk somewhere … or go for a drive. So it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of entertainment. Plus, in most public places, there’s segregation (e.g. separate ‘singles’ and ‘family’ sections in restaurants). So the mall is pretty much the only place where you could go just to hang out and be around other people. Plus, it’s air-conditioned.
The original reason for having the separate “bachelor” hours and “family” hours was to restrict mixing of the sexes and stem the “harrassment” of females. This, unfortunately, makes it sound like young Saudi men are only up to no good. Granted, there well may have been many incidences of a woman or group of women feeling intimidated by the antics and behavior of a group of guys, which is certainly reprehensible. But Vancouver has lots of young male Saudi students, as do many other North American cities, and as far as I know, there’s no concerns about allowing them to enter our malls! I am not trying to make excuses for anyone here, but in a way, I can’t completely blame the guys, especially if we’re talking about teenagers and especially given the context of this country. Everyone, especially young people, needs an outlet for their energy and self-expression. We’ve all been through adolescence and can understand this. But when there are such rigid restrictions (even in something as simple as going shopping), and especially as you’re growing up, reckless and inappropriate behavior is bound to come bursting out at the seams where you least expect it – including at the mall.
Another tentative but positive step forward this week as it was announced that Saudi Arabia is “considering” implementing physical education programs for girls! This announcement comes just days after Saudi Arabia announced that it has submitted a list of female athletes who could potentially participate in the London Olympics this summer.
[NB: I just have to interject here that for someone who dreaded gym class as a kid, it’s ironic that I am so excited about this news. Perhaps I might have fared better if gym classes didn’t include dodgeball and a guy named Trevor Robertson, who took the game way too seriously! Actually, the only time I didn’t dread gym was when we got to do square dancing, but I digress … ]
There are varying opinions about the attitude of Saudis towards exercise and participation in sports. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper by Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan summarized some of the various concerns raised by some religious clerics, such as the issue that women cannot compete in sport with appropriate modesty (i.e. without showing her body). Ms. Al Nafjan also states that “many in Saudi Arabia frown upon physical activity for girls”, citing reasons like “it’s masculine” and that “it’s against the physiological nature of women”. But on the other hand, there is increasing recognition and calls from people within the country for girls to have opportunities to participate in physical activity. This article by Mr. Almamoun Alshingiti last year puts forth several sensible reasons for the need for Saudi girls to exercise, and also sensibly addresses the religious-based concerns raised by clerics about women in sport.
In the last few years since I have been visiting Riyadh, I have noted an increase in the number of venues providing opportunities people to exercise, including the so-called “pregnant women’s walk”, walking trails in parkland just outside of Riyadh, and fitness clubs (although there seem to be more clubs for men than for women). As for fitness clubs, I was happy to find a ladies’ fitness club called Kinetico located just near our place. I should note that this centre offers a variety of all-inclusive fitness classes of the sort that I have not even found in Vancouver, including the Les Mills series, TRX, as well as your standard pilates, spin, and aerobics classes. I should also note that the classes are usually filled to capacity and there’s a line-up for the treadmills and step machines at peak hours. So there’s certainly no shortage of desire and interest!
The need to enhance physical activity and exercise participation goes for both the girls and the boys in Saudi Arabia! As I have mentioned before, there is an alarmingly high incidence of obesity and diabetes in this country. I know that I am repeating myself, but these are serious issues that the society needs to face head-on. All the oil in the world cannot make up for the personal and societal costs of chronic health conditions and illness. Health IS wealth.