How Sending Female Athletes to the Olympics May Be Bad for Saudi Women

Illustration for article titled How Sending Female Athletes to the Olympics May Be Bad for Saudi Women

After much arm twisting from the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia has said "uncle" and given up making excuses for why it's one of three countries that has never sent a woman to compete in the Olympic Games. But although the presence of a Saudi female athlete in London may appear encouraging to outsiders, some female athletes in the Middle Eastern kingdom fear it will result in a government crackdown on other women who want to compete in the future, or even play sports in the present.


It's a cynical way to view Saudi Arabia's inclusion of women, sure, but some Saudi women argue that the move merely window dressing — even as they're allowed to compete in the Olympics, Saudi women are arguably the most controlled, restricted, and policed women in the world, and having a female athlete swim or run or leap into the record books won't change that. Saudi women not allowed to drive, to vote or run for office (this will change during the next set of municipal elections), to travel without a male chaperone, or be admitted to a hospital without permission from a male guardian. Every attempt the King has made to be more inclusive of women has been met with "staunch opposition" from more hardline members of the royal family, according to the Washington Post.

Other human rights groups aren't so sure that the Kingdom of Saud's decision to buckle to IOC pressure wasn't a calculated PR move designed to distract the international community from how shitty things can be for women in the theocracy. Human Rights Watch released a statement reminding the IOC that Saudi Arabia's reticence to include female athletes was based on claims that there weren't enough women in the country qualified to compete on an Olympic level, circumstances that were brought on by the government's policies — girls and boys are educated separately in Saudi Arabia, and girls aren't given any time for exercise or sport during school. Swimming pools and stadiums don't allow women, women can't rent athletic venues, and most gyms don't admit women. There are no women qualified to compete in the Olympics because the Saudi government has made sure of it.


The one woman the Saudis had said might be ready to compete in the Games has been sidelined with an injury to her horse and thus she won't be ready to compete in games, and thus the government is now actively looking for some woman — any woman — who has managed to become Olympics-ready despite the government's draconian restrictions on women. And that's where some fear the government will focus it's post-Olympics backlash once the international community has decided to focus on something besides the Olympics, like the Katy Perry movie or soccer rioting. Despite the fact that women are wholeheartedly discouraged from doing anything that can result in muscles, a small number of them have formed underground soccer and basketball leagues that meet in secret. Members of these leagues fear that now that the government's search will bring unwanted attention to their activities and may result in a post-Olympics crackdown.

And even if it doesn't, sending a woman who is unqualified by the government's own design will likely result in that woman performing poorly alongside her international counterparts who live in countries that don't have religious police combing the streets to make sure women are behaving. Some Saudi women worry that this is akin to the government setting them up to fail and could result in officials publicly concluding that poor performance is evidence that the country's women shouldn't be allowed to compete in sports because they're simply not good enough. See? Evidence!

So, what's the international community to do? Maybe the best thing that could happen to a female Saudi athlete, whoever she is, would be not for her to win a medal (because that could be touted as evidence that everything is hunky-dory for women in Saudi Arabia), but rather for her not to come in last. But, given the level of training Saudi Arabia's female athlete is likely to have had, that feat would require a little international cooperation.


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I have an acquaintance who recently moved from the United States to Saudi Arabia by herself for work. She mentioned on Facebook that her company is providing her with a car and driver. I was absolutely aghast at the number of people who said, "Wow, that's awesome! Congratulations!" Even after she pointed out, "They're giving me a driver because I'm not allowed to drive or even leave my compound unescorted by a man," people were still joking about how, "Who cares? I'd love to have someone to drive me around all day!"