Will Saudi women finally get their Olympic moment?

Saudi Arabia may allow women to use an IOC loophole to compete in the Olympics

By Nicholas Nehamas

Dalma Rushdi Malhas atop Flash Top Hat in Singapore's Youth Olympics in 2010. (Reuters)

Should women be allowed to participate in the Olympics? Saudi Arabia thinks they shouldn’t, as one alert Latitude News reader pointed out.

Saudi Arabia is one of just three participating countries that have never sent a woman to the Games. The other two are Qatar and Brunei Darussalam. Although the Qu’ran is silent on the issue, Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious clerics believe exercise is an immoral and inappropriate pastime for women.

According to Human Rights Watch, which is leading a campaign to ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympics in London, one prominent Saudi scholar called female athletics “the steps of the devil.” Others have declared that physical exertion can corrupt women by tearing their hymen.

Even so, Saudi Arabia has no written law against women playing competitive sports. But the mutaween, or religious police, prevent the practice (despite this, a clandestine women’s soccer league has established itself underground). In public schools, girls are even forbidden from taking physical education classes. And in 2009 and 2010, the government closed down nearly all private gyms for women. No wonder more than half of Saudi females are obese.

An Olympic compromise

Now, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and human rights groups, this wealthy Gulf nation is changing its tune — sort of. At a press conference this month, Crown Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Olympic Committee, announced that his government might allow female athletes to compete at the 2012 Olympics in London.

The catch? They won’t be members of the official Saudi delegation. The IOC can invite individual athletes to compete at the Olympics as unaffiliated guests. The Saudis have suggested this as a way to include their female athletes in the Games without angering religious conservatives back home. But any invited Saudi women won’t get to walk with the men in the opening procession or wear their nation’s colors in competition.

Malhas breaks barriers

Dalma Rushdi Malhas of Saudi Arabia competes during the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics Games. (Reuters)

The Saudis have submitted a list of potential female competitors to the IOC. Almost certainly at the top of that list is 20-year-old Dalma Rushdi Malhas, the first ever female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete at the Olympic level. An equestrian show jumper, Malhas won a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, as one of our readers noted in a comment on our piece on doping in horse racing. That prompted us to look into Malhas’s story. Well, it turns out Malhas attended that event at the invitation of the IOC, and not as a member of the official Saudi delegation  (even though Youth Olympic rules require that every country enter at least one female representative). You can watch her and her horse, Flash Top Hat, ride to victory in the video link provided below (she appears starting at minute 1:00): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lfMjPIrgw0

In an interview with Latitude News, Anita DeFrantz, chair of the IOC’s Women and Sport Commission and a former Olympic medalist in rowing, said she was “very optimistic that we will be successful [in getting Saudi women to the Olympics]. . .” She also said she believes women from Qatar and Brunei  will compete in the London games.

Discrimination “incompatible” with Olympic ideals

Despite the IOC’s loophole, the Olympic charter states that “any form of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with the Olympic movement.” Bans have happened before: South Africa was banned from 1964 to 1992 because of apartheid, and Afghanistan was barred from the 2000 Games in Sydney because the Taliban mistreated women and exiled the country’s national Olympic Committee.

No such ban will happen in London, said Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations for the IOC. “The IOC does not give ultimatums nor deadlines,” she wrote in an e-mail to Latitude News, “but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

And if the Saudis backtrack? DeFrantz, the IOC chairwoman, was noncommittal: “My opinion is that sport belongs to every human. We all deserve the opportunity to experience it at the highest level . . . But if that’s the case [and Saudi Arabia prevents female athletes from competing], we’ll see what steps we have to take after the games.”

Of course, even if they make the Olympics, Saudi women, when they head back home, will still not be able to drive, or  marry, work or travel without the permission of a male relative.