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Saudi Arabia has debuted its first ever female Olympic athlete - but is this really an indication of progress, or is it too little?

6th August 2012

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For the first time Saudi Arabia has sent a female athlete to an Olympic Games ensuring that all nations have sent female athletes to London 2012, a first.

Saudi ArabiaThe first female athlete, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani had her debut on Friday, losing her first round judo bout in just under 90 seconds.

Sarah Attar, an 800m runner who will be competing on Wednesday, has also been selected to represent Saudi Arabia. This move came after much pressure from the IOC, and from the isolation and embarrassment caused by Brunei and Quatar’s decision to send female athletes, leaving Saudi Arabia as the only nation never to have sent female athletes.

For this reason London 2012 has been hailed as the most female-friendly Olympic Games, with each team including at least one female athlete. Brunei’s first ever and only female competitor even had the honour of being flag bearer at the opening ceremony, a hugely significant gesture.

These female athletes from Saudi Arabia are clearly an inspiration, competing on the international stage despite vociferous opposition from the Saudi conservative elite who view women and sport as incompatible with traditional values. For example, it is deemed wrong for a woman to command any sort of attention such as in a sporting area, and especially from a mixed sex audience, leading to Shaherkani being called “the prostitute of the Olympics” by the Saudi clergy.

It is hoped that greater sporting involvement will be the consequence of females representing countries like Saudi Arabia, with Shaherkani herself saying “hopefully this is the beginning of a new era”.

This hope is shared by Jacques Rogge, president of IOC, who believes that “for a young girl watching at home, thinking of becoming an athlete, it has never been a more natural choice to compete”. However, women face considerable and well known repression in Saudi Arabia which will act as a considerable barrier to this hope becoming reality.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, be without a male chaperone in public and a female’s testimony in court is worth that of two men.

With regards to sports there is still an effective ban on female sporting participation, there is no provision for female sports in state schools, nor is there any state infrastructure for women to enjoy sport as there is for men. As can be seen these views are heavily entrenched in the cultural and political system of Saudi Arabia, and are strongly supported by the conservative elite. For this reason Human Rights Watch doubts whether the inclusion of two female athletes in the Saudi team can address the “entrenched problems of gender discrimination”.

And so while the inclusion of these female athletes is to be welcomed, it has to be an incremental step towards wider reform in Saudi Arabia for it to have any real significance. Otherwise it will be nothing more than a Saudi Arabian ploy to, in the words of Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, “polish their foreign image and satisfy the west” using these two athletes as pawns in their attempt to appear more modern.

The IOC should be resolute when it comes to this issue, it makes a mockery of the values and principles of the Olympic movement for nations to deny access to sport for a huge section of their population.  It should use its power, which was used effectively to help achieve the inclusion of the female athletes in the first place, to press Saudi Arabia to adopt a more inclusive policy towards sport by making it clear that to compete in the Olympics a nation should adhere to the values of the Olympics.

Human Rights Watch believes policies such as mandatory sports education for females in state schools, permitting female sports clubs and having a depeartment in the Ministry of Sport dealing with women's sport will help achieve wider female participation. Most importantly these are policies which the IOC has the expertise to actively help Saudi Arabia achieve.

The success and momentum created by the first Olympic Games to have female athletes in every team must not be wasted. Without further action and pressure the risk is that after London 2012 closes, the repression of women in Saudi Arabia will continue.

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