The Olympic spirit is not Saudi

Saudi Arabia has this week been the subject of controversy in the West over its failure to field a female team for the Olympics this summer. Tessa Jowell, the former Culture Secretary and Olympics Minister, who is now a member of the Olympic Board, accused the Saudis of ‘clearly breaking the spirit of the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality’, though she stopped short of calling them to be banned from the Games.

The International Olympic Committee should, however, prove its commitment to the ‘Olympic spirit’ by banning Saudi Arabia from the Games unless it brings women. Sport certainly isn’t the most pressing issue for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – women of all ages are still required to have a male guardian and cannot travel without one, as well as being banned from driving. Nonetheless, this is one issue that is clear cut. The Olympics, while originating in the West, is a universal movement and it cannot remain so if it continues to allow discrimination on the grounds of sex.

Many Islamic countries only have a recent history of including female athletes in their Olympic teams, with the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 2008. This progress has encouraged the IOC to turn their attention to the final few. Saudi Arabia is one of three countries who have never brought female athletes to the Olympics, with Qatar and Brunei the other two. Under pressure from the IOC, Qatar has announced that it is bringing four female fencers to the games. Brunei, a tiny Muslim South East Asian country of 400,000 people, struggles to find enough athletes anyway. Moreover, advocacy group Human Rights Watch has pointed out that Qatar and Brunei, unlike Saudi Arabia, have previously sent female athletes to competitions like the Islamic Women’s Games and the Asian Games.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has announced that women can join the team if they live abroad. However, this is a token gesture and should be treated as such. A spokesman for the IOC said, “The IOC does not give ultimatums or deadlines, but believes a lot can be achieved through dialogue”, adding that “fruitful discussions” had lead to the three miscreant countries including women in the Youth Olympic Games last summer. Dalma Rushdi Malas was the first female Saudi athlete to compete in an Olympic event, winning a bronze medal for equestrian show jumping.

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However, Malas fits the criteria of living abroad and went to the competition at her own expense. It also remains to be seen whether Malas will even get the chance to compete, with the six-strong male team having already qualified for the show jumping event.

More importantly, this gesture does nothing to prove that Saudi Arabia is upholding the Olympic principle of non-discrimination in the country itself. There are private gyms and independent schools with girls sports teams. However, with women unable to drive themselves it is difficult for them to get anywhere to play sport. Human Rights Watch has also found that physical education has never been part of the girls’ curriculum. One woman told the group that a marathon was held a few years ago, but women could only participate if they wore the abaya (a black cloak covering the body from head to toe).

I should mention that I am not saying that Islam is at fault for the Saudis’ discrimination. Saudi Arabia practices a particularly strict form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, and many respected scholars of Islam doubt the theological foundations for the gender segregation it imposes. As the Saudis themselves say, “It’s the culture not the religion.”

Yet, care should also be taken when levelling accusations against the Saudis. Alongside the usual Islamophobia bandied about, some have likened the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to apartheid, and called for the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia like it banned South Africa. They have a point – treating women as second class citizens is essentially no different to treating black people as such. However, aside from the point that Western governments would never label Saudi Arabia as such, given its oil wealth and strategic position in the Middle East, the situation in Saudi Arabia is not black and white.

Advances have been made since King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005. He included women in diplomatic delegations abroad, and women now have the right to vote and stand as Members of Parliament. This is somewhat contradictory, given that women will still be under male guardianship and need to be driven to work and vote. Nonetheless, this is progress for women’s rights, however small.

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Moreover, aside from the powerful Saudi clerics, a large proportion of highly-educated, articulate Saudi women support the current status quo. A recent Gallup poll in eight predominantly Muslim countries found that a majority of Saudi women agreed that women should not hold political office. While I am not a cultural relativist and would like to see women’s rights become universal, this is not somewhere where the idea of rights will take hold naturally. Accusations of Western cultural imperialism are easy to make, and will threaten to erase the small advances that have been made for Saudi women.

Therefore, for the IOC to contribute to this progress it must couch its argument in terms of the Olympic principles, without bringing in pointless accusations of apartheid or the like. The IOC cannot stand by and let Saudi Arabia come to the Olympics without women.