Two Steps Forward…

Do Saudi Arabia's two Olympic female athletes -- the kingdom's first ever -- represent changing times in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, or will the conservative religious backlash win out?


For years, human rights organizations hoping to use the Olympics as leverage to challenge Saudi Arabia’s restrictive gender policies have looked to the case of apartheid South Africa. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after all, expelled South Africa in 1970 for its policy of racial discrimination — a ban that stayed in place for 21 years, until the fall of apartheid in 1991. If the IOC took action against South Africa to help end race-based apartheid there, shouldn’t it bar Saudi Arabia from the 2012 London Olympics in protest of gender-based apartheid in the kingdom?

The Saudi government moved to pre-empt such consequences this month by announcing that it would allow two female Saudi athletes to compete for the first time ever in the Olympics. The two Olympians are Sarah Attar, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen who will compete in the 800-meter race, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo. The IOC invited the women to the Olympics under a clause that allows athletes to compete "when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality," even if they do not meet minimum qualifying standards. But human rights organizations looking to use this small concession to sweep away Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women will find that their battle is just as long, and no less difficult, than the struggle against apartheid.

It’s not just the Olympics — Saudi Arabia is hostile to women’s participation in athletics at all levels. The ministry that regulates all competitive sports, including the 153 official sports clubs, does not recognize any female teams. Women aren’t even allowed inside these clubs or be spectators at stadiums. Female physical education is not permitted in public schools, so the only way a Saudi woman can practice any type of competitive sport is through expensive private schools or colleges, and health clubs. But these organizations are prohibited from publicizing their rare activities, and women’s teams of any sort are discouraged from publicly stating their affiliation with any institution.

The only exception is the groundbreaking work by Lina Almaeena, who launched the first public women’s basketball team in 2003 and subsequently co-founded the first women’s sports organization, Jeddah United, in 2006. The organization grew from a six-woman team to include the involvement of more than 300 men and women from across the kingdom. With the assistance of volunteers from the expatriate community, it has managed to grow, despite long odds.

But Jeddah United’s success has come at a price. Every time its activities receive media attention, the organization is met with a barrage of insults from conservative Saudis, who accuse it of corrupting the girls’ morals. "The key is to have publicity later," Almaeena told an NBC reporter in 2008 when asked how the organization managed to stay in business. "It’s also a matter of luck, but you’re more likely to get lucky in Jeddah [a less conservative city than many in the kingdom] compared to other places."

These public firestorms are the reason that female students participating in athletics at private schools and universities are discouraged from publicly discussing their activities. The last major controversy occurred in late 2010, when six private Saudi schools arranged a girls’ sports tournament; competitions included basketball, badminton, swimming, and athletics. Ultra-conservative groups got wind of the event, and they swiftly complained to the Education Ministry. The schools’ principals were inundated with calls from religious clerics and Saudi officials voicing their disapproval. Soon after, the Education Ministry issued a ruling that competitive programs at girls’ schools were prohibited, and the schools were forced to abandon the tournament.

Saudi conservatives have spilled a great deal of ink to justify the restrictions on female athletics. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Shathri, an Islamic cleric and public notary, is the author of one such effort — Girls’ Sports and Scouting in Schools and Universities, a book published in 2010 and currently in its third edition. The book lays out all the reasons why physical education is bad for girls — for example, Al Shathri warns that athletics "orient women toward a masculine physique, as their pelvis shrinks into the size of a male pelvis and their shoulders broaden."

Al Shathri leans heavily on past religious decrees to make his case against women in sports. His book includes the full texts of 24 fatwas by Saudi sheikhs prohibiting physical education and sports clubs for women, four of which were issued by the head of the Higher Islamic Council, the kingdom’s highest religious authority. For good measure, Al Shathri also threw in two fatwas by Yemeni sheikhs that take the same position.

He’s kind enough, though, to suggest some other options for women: His book advocates household chores such as vacuuming as an alternative to physical education. He backs up his stance with several international medical studies that show how keeping house also burns calories.

A recurring theme in Sheikh Al Shathri’s writing and the collected fatwas is that physical activity for women is not Islamically prohibited per se, but that it leads to issues that are. According to the book, athletics will corrupt Saudi women by leading to lesbianism, disruption of the menstrual cycle, hymen tearing, loss of femininity, and Westernization — as the participation of Saudi women in international competitions will require them to appear uncovered in front of men.

Though Saudi officials have said that the two female Olympians will be required to dress in such a way that "preserve[s] their dignity," the women’s inclusion has provoked a predictable backlash from the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment. Many expressed their outrage at the decision on social media sites: Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, who boasts over 2 million Twitter followers, chastised Youth and Sports Minister Prince Nawaf for the decision, asking him if he would be so supportive if Attar or Shahrkhani were one of his sisters.

Although the two women are set to compete in the London Olympics, Saudi Arabia has so far kept the news hushed up at home. Except for a short interview with Attar and footage of her running wearing a hijab and long-sleeved tracksuit (her family requested that photos of her wearing more revealing clothing be removed from her biography on the website of Pepperdine University, where she is a junior), no other information has been released. News about Shahrkhani is scarce, and no photos of her have been published.

There’s no getting around the fact that Saudi Arabia is allowing these two women to compete only to avoid being barred entirely from the Olympics, while simultaneously trying to erase any suggestion within the kingdom that this represents a breakthrough in gender equality. So far, after all, there is no indication that the government has budged in its restrictive policies toward women’s participation in sports at the local level.

Although the Saudi government has its own motivations for the inclusion of Attar and Shahrkhani, the decision is still a step in the right direction. It could have reverberations that not even the religious establishment can control, showing a generation of Saudi women that athletics are not an exclusively male domain. And who knows? Years from now, perhaps, a female Saudi athlete — standing on the podium to receive her gold medal — will spare a thought for these two Olympian trailblazers.

<p> Eman Al Nafjan is author of Saudiwoman's Weblog. </p>