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.
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.
Today several newspapers are reporting on a call from Human Rights Watch to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics this summer unless a female athlete is included in the delegation.
As usual, the focus is on women’s rights in this country, and rightly so. But I think this also brings to light other important issues around health and wellness that affect all sectors of society.
First, about the girls – there has never been physical education in the school system for girls. Thus a basic culture of physical activity and sport participation for girls does not exist yet. There are few, if no role models for young Saudi girls to participate in exercise. And it all starts at home, as we all know. If the previous generation of women didn’t grow up participating in exercise or sport, it’s more difficult to instill a cultural expectation for these activities for their daughters. Let’s think about that before we even consider the opportunities for female participation in elite competitive sport.
There is a movement among some scholars and government authorities to promote and implement physical education programs for girls in the school system. I know this because I have been working with some faculty at King Saud University who have been closely involved with this process. But it’s a slow process and they are facing lots of roadblocks and objections from different sectors of the ruling factions here. However, at a workshop I recently attended at King Saud University, I was encouraged to hear many of the male faculty, including the Rector of KSU no less, speak of their support for stronger engagement and participation of females in physical activity and sport.
I should note that it’s not as if the rest of the population are highly engaged in exercise and physical activity either. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of diabetes and obesity – statistics no doubt related to limited exercise and physical activity among the population, coupled with changing dietary and other lifestyle factors. There is growing awareness of the importance of exercise in health and wellness here, as in the rest of the world, but there continues to be a challenge in providing diverse opportunities to participate in physical activity.
Even Camelman finds it challenging to locate good places nearby to go for a jog outside, but he usually makes do with running around a swath of empty land near Ad Dir’iyah or just around his own neighbourhood. The only thing he has to deal with is the jeering honks of drivers passing by, who seem to find him amusing. But there are growing opportunities. In the 3 years since I’ve been traveling to Saudi, I’ve noticed an increasing number of fitness centres, including a Curves gym in the female-only section of the Panorama Mall. There’s also a place called (of all things) the “Pregnant Woman’s Walk”. (No, it does not refer to the specific gait pattern of a pregnant woman!) This is a place where there is an especially broad sidewalk around the perimeter of Prince Sultan University, giving you a good 4 km of uninterrupted walking/running.
So back to the issue of the Olympics and the participation of female athletes: are there even any Saudi female elite athletes who can compete at the world level? Let’s get some gym classes going for the girls first!