Olympics urged to press for Saudi female athletes

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The Saudi government discriminates against female athletes, kowtowing to fears that sports are “steps of the devil” that will lead girls into immorality, Human Rights Watch says in a new report. It argues that Olympic officials should demand changes before letting Saudi Arabia participate in the Olympic Games.

‘The glaring absence of a Saudi female athlete at the Olympics cannot go on much longer,’ Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke said in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Inequality in sports is just one of many obstacles facing women in Saudi Arabia. Yet bringing women into sports “is very achievable,” Wilcke said. “Government clerics are saying, ‘We should do this.’ Even if they take small steps, that still has the potential to alter lives of women who get out of the house, meet other women -- every bit helps.”


Saudi Arabia, along with Brunei and Qatar, have never sent a female athlete to the Olympics. Although their charter says discrimination is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement,” Olympic officials have said they won’t require Saudi Arabia to send women, preferring dialogue over ultimatums, the Human Rights Watch report says.

Human Rights Watch argues that the International Olympic Committee should set clear benchmarks and timelines for including women in sports as a condition for keeping Saudi Arabia in the Games. IOC officials were not immediately available for comment when the report was released Wednesday.

[Updated 5:00 p.m. Feb. 15: IOC spokeman Mark Adams wrote in an email to The Times, “We’ve seen from previous cases that persuasion is more effective. We’ve already seen them send a woman athlete to the Youth Olympic games so we are confident that we will make progress.”]

The report lays out the problems that have kept women from pursuing sports. Public schools don’t have gym classes for girls. The government shuttered private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010, angering women who protested with the slogan “Let her get fat.” It now allows “health clubs” for women, but the clubs are too expensive for many women and don’t offer the same range of activities.

Government sports facilities and clubs are all limited to men. Official Saudi sporting organizations don’t offer any competitive sports for women or support them in regional or international competitions.

Religious leaders have argued that sports create a slippery slope toward immorality. One group of religious scholars argued that swimming, soccer and basketball were too likely to reveal “private parts,” which includes large areas of the body. Another professor said it could lead to “mingling with men.”

“They say it’s too masculine or too aggressive or not really feminine,” said Lina Almaeena, a Saudi woman who plays on a private basketball team called Jeddah United, speaking by telephone. She is one of the few Saudi women who do manage to play sports, albeit under tight restrictions.

Yet there are also Saudi religious leaders who argue in favor of women playing sports. One sheik declared women playing sports was an “Islamic necessity.”

Wilcke said Wednesday that demographics alone are likely to shift attitudes in Saudi Arabia because of a ‘youth bulge’ of younger Saudis.

The Olympics have grappled with human rights issues before: South Africa was banned from taking part in the Games from 1964 to 1992 because of its apartheid policy. Afghanistan was shut out in 1999 because of discrimination against women under the Taliban; it was reinstated in 2002.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles