Saudi Arabia will enter women athletes in the Olympics for the first time ever this year, even though clerics in the Islamic kingdom have repeatedly denounced women's participation in sports.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games,” the Saudi London Embassy said in a statement Sunday.
Sports are just one of the activities that have historically been off-limits to Saudi women, who also cannot drive, marry, leave the country, go to school or open bank accounts without permission from a male guardian. Most of the country’s sports clubs and private gyms are closed to women.
To justify the ban, conservative clerics have, “put forward the ‘slippery slope’ argument that once women start to exercise, they will shed modest clothing, spend ‘unnecessary’ time out of the house, and have increased possibilities for mingling with men,” a recent Human Rights Watch report found.
The tide began to turn in April, when “the head of the kingdom’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the body that regulates sports in Saudi Arabia, said it would not prevent women from competing but that they would not have official government endorsement,” Reuters reported.
That same month, a Saudi girls’ school defied the ban “by erecting basketball hoops and letting pupils play at break-time.” In the comparatively liberal city of Jeddah, there are several female basketball and soccer teams, but they remain unofficial and are not allowed to compete internationally.
The Olympics decision followed pressure from the international community to allow Saudi women competitors, including numerous op-eds by policymakers and former Olympians calling for a reversal of the ban.
Saudi officials said the only female competitor ready for the games, which begin July 27, is showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, the BCC reported. “But they added that there may be scope for others to compete and that if successful they would be dressed ‘to preserve their dignity’.”
Qatar and Brunei have also prevented women from participating in the Olympics until this year, and both countries will send athletes to the London games. Three women will represent Qatar in London, including a rifle shooter, a swimmer and a sprinter.
This year, Brunei’s roster included one runner, Maziah Mahusin, who competes without a headscarf.
The International Olympic Committee has a history of harshly penalizing countries that don’t allow women competitors.
Because the Taliban prevented women from competing in sports earlier this decade in Afghanistan, the International Olympic Committee banned Afghanistan from competing in the 2000 Games in Sydney.
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