While athletes around the world enter their final stages of training for the 30th Olympic Games in London this July, Saudi Arabia stands alone as the only country who has banned females from participating.
Qatar and Brunei, who previously banned women from the international event for cultural and religious reasons, will send female athletes for the first time.
But Saudi Arabia has never nominated a woman to participate in the Olympic Games, a ban that stems from strict government policy denying women and girls’ right to practice sports, with conservative religious clerics fearing that it could lead them on a 'path of immorality'.
A Human Rights Watch report released in February, called on Saudi Arabia to protect women's equal right to sports and urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to live up to its charter, which prohibits discrimination, or face a ban similar to that imposed on Afghanistan in 1999 partly for its exclusion of female athletes.
Christoph Wilcke, author of ‘Steps Of The Devil’ and senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was time for the IOC to act on its membership rules.
'Saudi Arabia is violating the rules but the question is whether a ban will help or make things worse,' Wilcke, who is based in Munich, told IPS.
'The jury is out on that. I think two months before the start of the games would be the ideal time for the IOC to enforce their rules. Saudi Arabia clearly wants to participate by sending a male-only team. But their violations of the rules are coming at no price at all.'
Prince Nawwaf bin Faisal, Saudi Olympic Committee president, announced last November that only a men's team would participate at Games. He did not rule out the possibility of women competing but said it would only be by invitation from outside bodies.
He added that woman would have to be in the appropriate dress according to Islamic precepts, be in the presence of a male guardian and perform sport so that no part of her was visible, thereby not violating Islamic sharia law.
Religious and cultural rights
Women have the opportunity to play sports in all Muslim and Arab countries with support from their governments and national sporting authorities — except in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi National Olympic Committee and the country's 29 national sports federations offer no women's sections or competitions for aspiring female athletes.
Wilcke said the women who propagate the right to practice sport had the better argument in terms of religion.
'There's no religious ban on women playing sport at all; what the opponents argue is a traditional, male dominated, patriarchal view, that women should remain at home and not go out.'
The Saudi government only offers physical education classes at state schools for boys, and men's gyms receive licences confining women's facilities to health clubs that are usually attached to hospitals.
Of the 153 government-regulated sports clubs, none has a women's team.
Anthony Billingsley, international studies and Middle East lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told IPS that even if Saudi Arabia lifted their ban to allow women to compete, it would take years to produce an international-level female athlete.
'If you want to be a runner in Saudi Arabia, you have to do it indoors in a place that's associated with a hospital or something,' according to Billingsley, who has spent many years living and working in the Middle East.
'There's no real opportunity for women to get out and really exercise and compete against others, just running or riding by yourself isn't going to help. Time isn't the problem, the problem is that they don't have the opportunity to prepare, to learn or refine their skills.'
An ABC Radio journalist and lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne said Saudi Arabia's ban on female participation in sport reflected the strict interpretation of Islam practiced with a theological perspective that men and women should not mix.
'I guess that's the perspective of the quite conservative and very traditional form of Islam that Saudi operates on,' Nasya Bahfen told IPS.
'To them, having women on the field, running around, being looked at by men is tantamount to being blasphemous and completely un-Islamic. Whereas in other countries like Iran,they let women play but don’t allow them to watch (football games) or (appear) on a football field. Iran on the sporting field is not that bad compared with Saudi in terms of segregation.'
Are sports a priority?
Discrimination against women and girls in sport is one of many violations against women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Women are banned from driving and under the state system of male guardianship, Saudi women of all ages need a male guardian's consent to receive certain health care, to work, to study or to marry.
'Saudi Arabia is on its slow crawl towards modernity where they will look at women's rights (first in terms of) driving and other basic (priorities) and then move on to professional sport,' Bahfen said.
'Education is one field where Saudi women have some measure of equality. But (even) then they get pushed into quite traditional jobs. There's obviously a pressing need for female doctors, female nurses and female teachers, but there's very little encouragement for women to pursue non-traditional employment.'
Billingsley added that changing women’s status would require a huge generational and educational step.
Wilcke said it would come down to a change in government policy for women to have basic rights and a degree of political power.
'We know that you can't dismantle a system of discrimination within three months,' Wilcke said, referring to the slim possibility of change before the Olympic Games in July.
'But we want to see good faith and immediate efforts on this issue and we have suggested announcing a date for when physical education is introduced for girls in state schools and then laying out a timeline to open up a women’s section in government-regulated sports clubs (and) national sporting federations.'
'These are fairly simple steps that (lay) the infrastructural groundwork for women to start practicing sports before we get Olympic-quality athletes,' he concluded.
© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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