For the first time in Olympic history, every country that is participating is expected to send both male and female athletes. Three Muslim countries that have never before sent a female athlete to the Olympics, Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia, are reportedly planning to send female athletes to London this summer.
Yesterday, a London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper,Al-Hayat, broke the news that Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz approved the participation of female athletes at the Olympics this year so long as their sports “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.” The news of all three countries allowing female athletes to participate is wonderful but particularly significant for Saudi Arabia because it, unlike the other nations, has not previously allowed women to participate in national or regional competitions.
Human Rights Watch has been unhappy with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for allowing Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics due to the country’s history of discriminating against women. Outside of athletics, Saudi Arabia has faced criticism from the West based on its treatment of women in general. As reported in The New York Times, women “must receive permission from male guardians to gain employment, get an education, open a bank account, get married and travel abroad. Effectively, they are forbidden from driving automobiles.” Last month Human Rights Watch issued a report on Saudi Arabia’s treatment of female athletes which included the government “providing no physical education for girls in state schools, closing gyms for women in 2009 and 2010 and forcing [women] to play in underground leagues.”
Female athletes from Saudi Arabia may have trouble meeting the qualification standards for the Olympics due to their lack of international experience. However, the IOC has made exceptions to the standards in the past for developing nations and is under pressure to make exceptions in this case as well so that women from these countries can compete. That decision will not be made until the formal proposal is made to the IOC in May.
While allowing women to compete in the Olympics is not going to change things instantly in any of these countries it is a step toward equality. Every time women are kept from participating in any aspect of society we all suffer; whether it’s voting, banking, driving a car, or playing sports. Allowing women access to sports is not simply a feel good story. Studies in this country have shown that women who participate in sports are more likely to volunteer, to register to vote, to feel comfortable making statements in public, to follow news and current events, and to participate in boycotts than women who do not. Sports can teach valuable skills that extend off the court and into everyday life and give women and girls higher self-esteem and better body image than their non-athlete peers. Female athletes also have better grades and graduation rates than women who are non-athletes.
Athletes, male or female, want to win. In this case, however, the final outcome of the competition is less important than the fact that, for the first time, these women are going to get to play at the Olympics and I will be cheering them on as they, hopefully, pave the way for more girls and women to do the same.