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August 17, 2008

The Olympics: Women's Right to Compete

We wrote the other day about our confusion over the very slight discrepancy between the men's and women's beach volleyball uniforms. Today we're thinking that at least those women were able to come and compete in the Olympics, because here in the year 2008 there are still a few countries who do not allow women to participate.

I only watched part of the opening ceremonies, but I did see Saudi Arabia's entrance with their all-male team, and NBC commentators noted that Saudi women aren't allowed to represent their country at the Olympics, or do other fun activities like drive cars or leave the house without a man's permission.

In fact, Saudi women are not just barred from the Olympics, but from participating in sports of any kind. There are no sports programs for women in schools and the Ministry of Education has rejected proposals to introduce them, and there are no official federations to support women's sports. "Saudi Arabia’s rulers follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam...According to an IGA policy paper released last June, Saudi clerics have released fatwas effectively banning women from sports by banning sports centers for women."

Some Saudi women disagree with their rulers' interpretations, and they are speaking out. Recently BBC News spoke to the founder and some of the players from Jeddah United, an "unofficial" Saudi women's basketball team. (The article also has a short video of the women playing and talking about the impact of sports on their lives.)

"A lot of the women were depressed and this just lifts them up. It gives them a sense of meaning and belonging," said Danaya al-Maeena.

The women of Jeddah United exemplify how reform is slowly coming - led by young people who want the country to modernise in a way consistent with the teachings of Islam.

"We are not asking for something against our culture or our religion," said Danaya's sister Lina. "All of the Arab and Muslim countries around the world have women competing and a few years ago we had the Bahraini 100m runner who ran in her veil. These people should realise we can compete within our religious and cultural framework."

As Lina points out, many other countries have Muslim female athletes. Some of them wear headscarves and/or some manner of modified outfits to compete and some don't, depending on the sport, the country and culture that they come from, and their personal choice. Here are just a few examples:

~"The women in Roqaya Al Ghasara's home town in Bahrain are so proud of their pioneering Olympic sprinter that some of them got together to design and sew a set of tailor-made aerodynamic veils for her to run in."
~"For some countries, women's clothing mandated by the conservative interpretation of religion precludes their participation in most sports - for instance, Iran's female Olympians were limited to pistol- and rifle-shooting at the Barcelona, Sydney and Athens Olympics." "Iranian women still battle restrictions but three, in headscarves, will compete in rowing, taekwondo and archery."
~"Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka won the 1,500-meter race in 1992 wearing contemporary running shorts."
~In 1984, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco became the first woman from a Muslim-majority country to win a gold medal. And just this month she became the first Muslim woman elected to the International Olympic Committee's executive board.
~Bonus example - " Muslims who take a more relaxed view of Muslim taking part in sports sometimes point to the example of Mohammed. One of the hadiths, or traditional writings and saying about the prophet, says that he ran a race with one of his wives, Aisha. Aisha, who was much younger than Mohammed, won the race, but some years later, after she gained some weight, they had a rematch and he won, according to the hadith, narrated by Abu Dawood."

For many people, the growing numbers and increasing successes of these women makes Saudi Arabia's position that much harder to justify or accept. And it turns out that discrimination on the basis of gender is actually a violation of the Olympic Charter. The fifth item on the list of Fundamental Principles of Olympism reads:
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.
So. If gender discrimination is "incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement", why are countries still allowed to prevent their women from participating? In 1964, South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of discrimination against black athletes under apartheid. The IOC went through with the decision to ban even after South Africa agreed to put some black athletes on their team, because a ban remained in place within the country on competition between white and black athletes. "The IOC said nothing short of a public announcement made in the newspapers and on the radio renouncing all racial discrimination in sport would be acceptable." The ban remained in effect until the 1992 Barcelona games, which took place a year after the repeal of apartheid laws in South Africa.

If South Africa announced tomorrow that they had decided to return to a policy of segregation and exclusion of black athletes, they would probably be re-banned immediately. So why is gender discrimination treated differently? Why is the IOC unwilling to take a strong stand against gender discrimination? Part of the answer may lie in the makeup of the IOC itself. "Of the IOC's 110 members, 16 are women - and only one serves on the powerful 15-member executive board. A sizable majority of the 205 national Olympic committees have executive bodies that are at least 80 per cent male, and only two of the 35 Olympic sports federations have women as presidents." The IOC was formed in 1894, but did not include women until 1981. (Saudi Arabia does have a representative on the Committee - Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz. Maybe his seat should go to a leader from a country that respects the Olympic Charter...and women?) It may be time for the IOC to review its own charter and commit to change from within.

Obviously, not everyone favors banning Saudi Arabia for their discriminatory policies. Some have argued that a ban would be unfair to all of the male Saudi athletes who have worked hard to make it to Olympic level. It would be, but not nearly as unfair as never getting the chance to participate at all. And if a ban were to happen, those male athletes should place the blame for it right where it belongs - in the hands of the Saudi officials who have earned it by choosing to exclude women in violation of the Olympic charter.

Another popular argument is the ever-popular "but it's their culture". Says who? There are many Saudi women (and some men, and Muslims from other countries) who say that it isn't. That they can compete while still respecting their religion, their culture, their country, themselves. Why shouldn't they be heard? And what about respect for the culture of the Olympics? Saudi Arabia shows none when they show up with a team that violates the Principles of Olympism set forth in the Olympic Charter. The IOC also shows none when, by turning a blind eye, they send a message to all of the women who are competing at these games, and to everyone watching around the world, that discrimination is sometimes okay and that exclusion is worth no action when women are the victims.

The BBC article on Jeddah United and the state of sports for Saudi women suggests that some action is quietly being taken.

No-one from the Saudi Olympic Committee was available for interview, but the International Olympic Committee is thought to be putting increasing pressure on them to include women in the future.

London 2012 may therefore see Saudi women Olympians for the first time. If not, it is conceivable the Kingdom may not be allowed to enter an all-male team.

We hope that's true. And here in the U.S., Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro is planning to put some pressure on the IOC.
When the U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess in September, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) will push a resolution calling on the IOC to strive to make the next summer Games, in London in 2012, the first in which every country’s team includes women.

“Congresswomen DeLauro is a very big advocate of encouraging women in sports at all levels,” spokeswoman Adriana Surfas said Thursday. “When young women get involved in sports it has a profound effect – in their studies, their interaction with friends and others, and in their future success and careers.”

Asked about countries which for cultural or religious reasons put hurdles in the path of women in sports, Surfas said “other countries have overcome the challenges. If applied sensitively, we know it can be done.”
There are also some small signs of progress within the sports organizations in Saudi Arabia. This year, Arwa Mutabagani was appointed to a spot on the board of the Equestrian Foundation, making her the first Saudi woman to be appointed as a top sports administrator. And last month, "Sarah Mouwad was appointed to a senior position in the college football league in Riyadh. 'I hope to make a dent in the Saudi sports scene in whatever way I can,' she recently told al-Riyadh newspaper."

The number of women competing in the Olympics has been steadily increasing: "Of the 11,427 athletes participating in these Games, 4,845 are women — 500 more than in Athens four years ago, 1,000 more than competed in Atlanta 12 years ago". In 1996, 26 countries sent all-male teams to Atlanta. In Sydney the number was 12 and by Athens it was down to five. The two nations making their Olympic debuts this year, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, each have women on their small teams.

Oman and the United Arab Emirates are allowing women to compete for the first time at these Games. Shaikha Maitha Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum also carried the UAE's flag during the opening ceremony. Of course, in the case of the United Arab Emirates, the two women who were allowed to break ground by competing for the first time happen to be the daughter and niece of the Prime Minister. But hey, sometimes small steps are good, right? Maybe some talented female athletes in the UAE can use the precedent being set in Beijing to argue that more women should be included next time. Maybe one of the women competing here will do very well or even win a medal and help to convince officials in the UAE and elsewhere that maybe this women competing thing isn’t such a bad idea.

Rashed al-Heraiwel, head of the Saudi delegation, confirmed no women would be in the line-up, apparently due to opposition by powerful clerics to women's participation in sport. Heraiwel said now was not the time for the Saudi authorities to consider allowing women into sport. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said, suggesting that issue had not been discussed due to the de-facto ban.

I think it’s time for the IOC to tell Saudi Arabia and any other country that chooses to exclude women that the time has come to cross the bridge or stay home.

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DollyAnn said...

I had no idea some countries were still banning women from competing in the Olympics. It's good to hear that our Congresswoman Rosa is trying to do something about it though.

Interesting site! I stumbled over here from Rotten Little Girls.

Harlequin said...

i really liked this article because i honestly have not heard much about this at all. it doesn't make sense to me that Saudi Arabia is allowed to compete at all if they are violating the code of the IOC. To me it seems like we pick and choose what we allow - and for some reason it seems like everyone is afraid of "offending" the culture that bans women from participating in sports.

if they don't follow the rules, then they shouldn't get to play at all.

also, one of my favorite books is called "Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia" by Jean P. Sasson. While it doesn't have anything to do with the Olympics, as a young girl i found it horrifying to read about what it was like for women over there, even women who were of extremely high status. I always wondered what happened to this princess too...

anyways the Olympics are not doing too well in terms of gender, at least in my opinion. all the controversy that is going on seems to have a lot to do with women (the lipsynching girl, the underage Chinese gymnasts, the beach volleyball uniforms, etc.) and it's just really disappointing.