An Olympic Door Opens for Saudi Woman

Arwa Mutabagani, here with Saudi rider Faisal al-Shaalan in Hong Kong, is the first woman in a Saudi Olympic delegation.
Arwa Mutabagani, here with Saudi rider Faisal al-Shaalan in Hong Kong, is the first woman in a Saudi Olympic delegation. (Courtesy Of Arwa Mutabagani)

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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 18, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- The first female member of a Saudi Olympic delegation is spending her days with the equestrian team in Hong Kong, checking on horses, encouraging riders, planning training schedules and meeting with officials.

Arwa Mutabagani, 38, a professional show jumper, became a member of the Saudi Olympic Committee after her appointment in April to the government body in charge of sports in Saudi Arabia, another first for a woman.

Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for being one of a few countries that ban female athletes at the Olympics, but Mutabagani said her role is a sign that Saudi Arabia is trying to open the way for women in sports.

"The door has been opened. I want to work hard and prove I'm not just a token woman or figurehead," she said.

Some female activists say the government is not moving fast enough.

"We have been asking for years via the media and academics and education experts and officials to be allowed the right to practice sports," said Manal al-Sharif, head of the women's section of al-Madina newspaper. "There is nothing in the religion that bans this. It's only our tradition and culture that are driving this ban until now."

Saudi Arabia, a deeply patriarchal and predominantly tribal society, remains a traditional kingdom in which puritan clerics wield a great deal of influence.

Women are not allowed to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian. The country bans sports and physical education classes in state-run girls' schools, and there are no public sports complexes for women. On their own, women have discreetly formed a few sports teams, but the level of competition is nowhere near Olympic caliber.

Activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a video on YouTube to coincide with the start of the Olympics, demanding the right for Saudi women to participate and an end to the official ban on women's sports. The video showed five young women sitting on a soccer field, their bodies and faces covered in the traditional black abaya and head scarf, but their hands and feet symbolically shackled by tape.

Huwaider said she was surprised and touched by photos on the Internet of European women at the 2004 Olympics holding up signs that said "Where are our Saudi sisters?"

"I posted this video because I wanted people to know that there are Saudi women as well asking for this right," said Huwaider, 46, an educational analyst at an oil company.

But women's sports is a controversial subject in Saudi Arabia, where clerics preach against the encroachment of "Western values" and the dangers and sin of women trying to imitate men.


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