Saudi Arabia Sends Women to Olympics for First Time

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For the first time, Saudi Arabia will be sending two female athletes into Olympic competition. While the decision is a historic one, it rings hollow for many women's rights activists. Saudi women are prohibited from voting or driving and require permission from a male relative to work or travel. 

Eman Al Nafjan, who is from Saudi Arabia, writes a blog promoting women rights in her country. She is dismissive of the change in policy given the multitude of more pressing women's rights problems that have not been addressed. "I have never heard of anyone from the internal activist scene calling for the participation of women [in the Olympics] because it's very, very, very low on our priority list, considering all the other issues that we have here," Al Nafjan says. 

Founder and director of the Institute for Gulf AffairsAli al-Ahmed, is also critical of the International Olympic Committee's latest move towards gender equality. By allowing Saudi Arabia to send female athletes to London, al-Ahmed believes, the committee is doing Saudi women no favors. "Here, the Olympic committee is really siding with the Saudi monarchy in its gender apartheid policy," he says. "Now, it is the I.O.C. that is discriminating against women in Saudi Arabia and allowing the Saudi monarchy to escape international scrutiny." 

No Women No Play is a campaign by the Institute for Gulf Affairs that calls for Saudi Arabia to be banned from Olympic competition until the government allows women equal rights. "The reason we have this campaign is for this purpose," al-Ahmed says. "It's not a religious issue." The director points out that Iran, another country that dictates strict Islamic law, has sophisticated athletic programs for its female citizens. Iranian female athletes make use of a specially designed hijab, or headscarf, in order to follow Islamic tradition during training and competitions. 

The campaign is in the process of suing Saudi Arabia in Swiss court in an effort to secure equal rights for Saudi women, and until that happens, the director believes that a hard stance should be taken. "Saudi Arabia must be banned from the Olympic committee, the Olympic movement, and any international sporting event, just as South Africa was [during Apartheid]," al-Ahmed says.

Lynn Sherr is a journalist and author of "Swim: Why We Love the Water." She explains0 the similarities between the case of Saudi women and of black South Africans during Apartheid, and the reactions by the Olympic committee in both situations. "The I.O.C. has never exactly been a bastion of either human rights or feminism," Sherr says. "They have been pulled kicking and screaming into first the 20th and now the 21st century." 

She acknowledges the significance of the banning of racially segregated South Africa from Olympic competition in 1964 and what it did for the progress of racial equality in that nation, but still believes that Saudi female athletes competing is a positive first step. 

"It's a start, and it's got to start somewhere," Sherr says. "It was probably done for the wrong reasons, but that doesn't mean that it can't have decent consequences in the long run."