Saudi Arabia Allows Women To Compete In Olympics As Part Of Official Delegation

Dalma Rushdi Malhas, rider likely to represent Saudi Arabia in London

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia reversed course on Sunday, ending a ban on women athletes representing the conservative Muslim monarchy at the Olympics. In April, Saudi Prine Nawaf, who heads the country’s Olympic committee, said women would not be travelling with the official delegation to the 2012 games in London this summer. The decision raised an outcry, including propsals to bar Saudi Arabia from the games.

Sunday’s decision by the kingdom was related in a statement from the embassy in London:

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to full participation [in the Olympics]. The Saudi Olympic Committee will oversee participation of female competitors who qualify.

The statement about the Olympic Committee “oversee(ing) participation” of women likely refers to the initial comments by Prince Nawaf, who said that female athletes might be allowed to compete outside the purview of the official delegation.

Women who do compete — to include the most successful of Saudi Arabia’s female athletes, 18-year-old Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a competitor in Olympic equestrian — will be required to wear clothes that “preserve their dignity.” The BBC comments that the euphemism is likely to mean women will wear “sport hijab,” a loose-fitting garment that covers a woman’s hair but not face. Malhas has in the past given press conferences with her hair uncovered.

While allowing a single woman athlete into the Olympics doesn’t exactly erase rampant sexism in the powerful, oil-producing Persian Gulf country, the move does signal a step toward alleviating gender segregation in some conservative, religious MIddle Eastern countries’ participation in the Olympics.

Both Brunei and Qatar are set to send their first female competitors to the games. With the Saudi addition, Chloe at Feministing writes, “(T)here are now no countries remaining in the world who do not allow women to represent them at the Olympics. And that means that the Modern Olympic Games just got a hell of a lot more modern.”


The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, which has campaigned against the Saudi ban on women Olympic athletes and wider discrimination in sports, released a statement about the kingdom’s decision:

The announcement by Saudi Arabia that it will allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time is an important step forward, but fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom… Human Rights Watch cautioned that the gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. Millions of girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.

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