As the world prepares for the 2012 Olympics in London this summer and the 5th IOC World Conference on Women in Sport gets underway in Los Angeles, the Saudi government continues to discriminate against women. The country has never sent a female athlete to the Olympics and has never been penalized by the international Olympic authorities for violating the IOC’s pledge of equality.
Today Human Rights Watch issued a report and called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make ending discrimination against women in sports in the kingdom a condition for Saudi Arabia’s participation in Olympic sporting events, including the 2012 London Games.
In interviews with Saudi women and international sporting officials, the human rights group found that Saudi government restrictions put sports beyond the reach of almost all women in the Gulf nation.
The 51-page report, “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women and Girls’ Right to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” documents discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education in denying girls physical education in state schools, as well as discriminatory practices by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare in licensing women’s gyms and supporting only all-male sports clubs.”
Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries in the world never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics. The other two, Qatar and Brunei, do not bar women from competitive sports and their women athletes have participated in other international sporting competitions. Qatar has supported sports for women over the past decade and said that it plans to send women athletes to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Women and girls are not only denied the thrill of competition, but also the physical and psychological benefits, leading to longer, healthier lives, that participation in sports conveys. Obesity rates have been growing in Saudi Arabia in recent years, in particular among women, as have related diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In Saudi Arabia, between two-thirds to three-quarters of adults and 25 to 40 percent of children and adolescents are estimated to be overweight or obese, according to a scientific article in Obesity Review in 2011.
According to the report, “Girls, unlike boys, receive no physical education in state schools, and inferior quality physical education in the private schools that offer the subject. Of 153 youth ministry-supported sports clubs in the country, none have a women’s team. Only one private sports company, Jeddah United, boasts women’s basketball teams, while other women’s soccer teams train informally and play in underground leagues.”
Human Rights Watch said that the exclusion of women and girls from sports and exercise in Saudi Arabia is part and parcel of the wide-scale, systematic discrimination against them in the country. Women have no rights to function as autonomous human beings; instead they are required to obtain permission from a male legal guardian (a father, son, or husband) to carry out ordinary life activities, including employment, education, medical procedures, opening a business or bank account, traveling, marrying, or driving.
A Los Angeles Times article explains “religious leaders have argued that sports create a slippery slope toward immorality. One group of religious scholars argued that swimming, soccer and basketball were too likely to reveal “private parts,” which includes large areas of the body. ” As you probably know, the ultra-conservative Islamic state requires women to conceal their bodies and sometimes even their faces while in public.
The Olympics have grappled with human rights issues before: South Africa was banned from taking part in the Games from 1964 to 1992 because of its apartheid policy. Afghanistan was shut out in 1999 because of discrimination against women under the Taliban; it was reinstated in 2002.
What do you think? Should Saudi Arabia be forced to change it’s domestic policy and allow girls to play sports? Is not allowing girls to play sports a human rights issue?