By Alixandra Greenman
I never imagined that I would one day sit down and think about how lucky I am to go to local gyms to workout, participate on sports teams, and if I were so inclined, work toward the ultimate athletic goal of becoming an Olympian.
According to a sweltering 51-page report published by Human Rights Watch—with the assistance of the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA)—on February 15, 2012, Saudi regime “… officials systematically discriminate against women, providing no physical education for girls in state schools, closing gyms for women in 2009 and 2010 and forcing them to play in underground [games],” says New York Times reporters Jerè Longman and Mary Pilon.
As an American woman, it is important to realize that not everyone is afforded the same rights that we have. It is surprising to me that in the 21st century, not all women are afforded these very basic of rights. In fact, women in Saudi Arabia not only do not have these rights but also face widespread discrimination in their everyday lives. According to Longman and Pilon, “… women … must receive permission from male guardians to gain employment, get an education, open a bank account, get married and travel abroad. Effectively, they are forbidden from driving automobiles.”
For two years now, IGA based in Washington DC through its No Women No Play campaign has been fighting to change simply one thing about Saudi Arabian society: the fact that Saudi women can’t even dream of becoming Olympians. At the end of the day, IGA’s eventual goal is full political, social, economic, and legal rights for Saudi women, but unfortunately that will only come with time. Keep in mind that we are very fortunate to live in a country that now, after decades of fighting, views women as equal to men.
“Women’s participation in sports is a reflection of the position of women in society in general. The entrance of women into these sporting spaces often coincides with women’s entrance and active participation in civil society and politics,” says Nawal El Moutawakel—the world’s first African-Muslim female Olympic champion.
IGA has appealed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on a few occasions and has received little more than a patronizing response. In one response to a letter IGA sent to IOC President James Rogge, his Chief of Staff Christophe De Kepper said that the IOC “… strives to ensure that the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement are universal and non-discriminatory … Whilst we are aware of the existing challenges, we do not give ultimatums or deadlines but believe that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”
Even after noting that the IOC is blatantly violating their own Olympic Charter, IGA was never the less dismissed. “It’s very disheartening to finally discover the true nature of the IOC. It’s disappointing to find out that the IOC is run like a mafia organization focused entirely on generating revenue and glamour for its directors instead of on the dreams and rights of young people,” said IGA Director Ali Al-Ahmed.
IGA has clearly done its research. And the IOC is in fact violating its own policies. Their Charter states, “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind … Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”
Based on this principle, the IOC is indeed condoning gender apartheid on the part of the Saudi government. Thus, it is critically important to send a message to the IOC that this is not acceptable. The Olympic Charter was created for this very reason and considering it is a legally binding document, I find it astonishing that the Committee can let the Saudi’s continue to not allow women the right to represent their country at the Olympics—or any international sporting event for that matter.
Rogge has claimed publicly that his organization is still talking with the Saudi’s about sending women athletes to London despite the fact that every country’s respective Olympic committees has submitted a final list of its athletes participating in this year’s games to the IOC. Even Qatar and Brunei—two countries who have previously only sent men to the Games—have confirmed that they will send female athletes this year.
In a Washington Post article published in May, Rogge was quoted saying, “’It’s not an easy situation … There is a commitment. We’re working steadily with [the Saudi’s] to find a good solution.’”
But IGA believes the IOC is not dedicated—as they say they are—to finding a solution. One possible compromise that has been suggested is to allow Saudi women to compete in London under the IOC flag instead of as a part of the Saudi team. Rogge has outright rejected this idea stating, “There is absolutely no need to consider the possibility of the participation of Saudi women under the IOC flag.”
In addition to the fact that this leads IGA to believe that the IOC is not willing to find a solution, it is also flabbergasting that they have denounced any possibility of imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia until they agree to include women on their Olympic team.
“After two years of trying to get the IOC to pay attention to this issue, I am convinced that their anti-Arab and Muslim bigotry explains their behavior,” said Al-Ahmed.
The IOC’s record regarding gender discrimination does not add up with the current stonewalling that IGA and other non-profits have been getting. In fact, prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics, the IOC actually banned South Africa from participating due to their unwillingness to end gender apartheid practices in their country. Given that the IOC was faced with a similar situation decades ago, it is astounding to realize how hypocritical and unwilling the IOC is currently being to punish the Saudi’s for practicing similar (some even say worse) discrimination against its female citizens.
Despite the fact there are Saudi women who have a good chance at qualifying for the Olympics, the Saudi National Olympic Committee will not entertain the idea of even letting these young athletes try. One possible candidate is teenage equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas who at the 2012 Youth Olympics in Singapore won a bronze medal in jumping.
Qualifying for the Olympics is truly not the issue as the IOC has on numerous occasions granted special permission to athletes from developing nations to compete in the Olympics even if they do not quite make the cutoff.
The Saudi National Olympic Committee, in addition to representatives of the Saudi regime, has made their feelings—about the participation of women in the Olympics—clear. In April of this year, for instance, President of the Committee Prince Nawaf bin Faisal was quoted in a Saudi-run newspaper that he does “not approve” of sending female athletes.
What IGA and other human rights groups ultimately want is true human rights for Saudi women. It is clear that getting there is going to be a long, hard road which is why the IOC needs to step up by enforcing its own policies and send the message that they are not going to tolerate discrimination based on gender.
Alixandra Greenman is the No Women No Play Campaign Coordinator. She is a researcher for the Political Science Department Chair at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is also a former intern for a Member of the British Parliament and for Ms. Magazine.