News for Friday 27 July is taken from Women’s Views on News
In the London 2012 Games there will be, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, a female athlete sent from every participant nation.
The last few nations to abstain from sending sportswomen were Qatar, Brunei and, the most publicised of the three, Saudi Arabia.
As has been pointed out on WVoN, however, the matter of Olympic equality is all but resolved. The IOC’s (International Olympic Committee) threat to ban Saudi Arabia from the Games entirely unless they included women has been mollified, but this does not mean that the state will now encourage women to participate, or work to diminish the stigma put upon women athletes.
Qatari swimmer Nada Arkaji has benefited from the use of Doha’s substantial sporting facilities. Qatar is seemingly now doing its utmost to include women, since establishing a Women’s National Sports Committee in 2001.
Saudi runner Sarah Attar, on the other hand, trains in California, where she lives and grew up, and covers her hair and limbs only while representing her country. She has spent only a small amount of time in Saudi Arabia.
She may be an example of an impending transitory phase in women’s sport in the country, where initial participants will hail from diasporic communities while the training infrastructure is established.
However this might be wishful thinking as there is still considerable resentment towards the idea of women’s sports within Saudi Arabia.
While the common conception is that Saudi Arabia’s reservations are down to religion, many Saudi commentators are keen to point out that it is less an issue of dogma and more so of cultural norms.
Often left unsaid by the media, the more extreme of these contentions are perhaps exemplified by Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan, an academic in Riyadh. His primary concern is the hymen.
“Saudi families equate a broken hymen with the loss of virginity, and a girl losing her virginity/hymen by any means other than legitimate marriage, such as participating in strenuous activity, damages the family’s honour. For this reason… saving girls’ virginity is deeply entrenched in their culture, and this tradition should be respected.”
Citing the claimes from various groups that human rights of Saudi women were being violated by their exclusion, Al-Zuhayyan offers a rebuttal.
“[The] Saudi government would not force its citizens, specifically, parents, to let their girls participate in the Olympics against their will. In fact, by doing so, it would be in clear violation of their human rights… Also, complete disregard of culture and tradition is a violation of human rights.”
He further claims that “cultural and structural conditions are not conducive for Saudi female athletes to present an impressive performance, or win an Olympic medallion,” therefore, by pressuring Saudi Arabia to include female athletes, international organisations such as the IOC are “intentionally and knowingly subjecting the entire Saudi population, particularly these female athletes and their families, to a degrading treatment in front of billions of people around the globe. This is also a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 5.”
“Thus,” he concludes, “one can easily discern that Saudi women’s participation in the Olympics is against human rights.”