There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently wondering if the ageing Saudi princes are really fit to rule their country. The Economist wrote in their latest article, Time for Old Men to Give Way, that the country’s ruling status is ludicrous as the last Prince to be anointed to succeed the throne is 76 and unwell. They wrote that ‘the Arab world’s most conservative monarchy must change fast or die’. Yet there has been positive change in the country in the last couple of days as behind-door negotiations were made to allow women to enter the upcoming London Olympics for the first time in history.
This decision finally came after the International Olympics Committee (IOC) threatened to disqualify the Saudi team due to gender discrimination. A member of the Saudi embassy released a statement to the BBC stating that the Saudi Olympic Committee will ‘oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify’. As it stands, it appears that there is only one woman who will be able to pass the trials to go to London, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a show jumper. But she is one woman more than normal in the Saudi team and a much needed symbol of hope for the approximately 12 million women living for so long under repression.
At first, women were only able to exercise in gender-segregated gyms but in 2009 they were all closed down, severely limiting the amount of sport in which women were able to participate. There is no form of sporting tradition for women in Saudi Arabia, and it is because of the kingdom’s repressive leaders and this piteous law that female sporting prowess will be so sparse in London this summer. The rest of the world forced the ageing princes into adopting a more liberal approach to women and their basic human rights, and it is slowly but surely paying off.
A similar picture can be seen in countries such as Qatar and Brunei, who have also never had women enter on their Olympics team. Another story of hope is that of Tahmina Kohistani, who was seen running the 60m race for Afghanistan in Istanbul in the IAAF Indoor World Championship. Unlike the other contenders, she was dressed head to toe in ankle-length running pants, a loose fitting t-shirt down to her wrists and a sports hijab. She came close to the back, but the very point that she was participating was hope for the sporting future of Afghani women.
A spokesman has said that the women will have to dress ‘to preserve her dignity’, which will be attire worn similarly by Kohistani in March. Although the law has officially been passed and there will be women participating in the Olympic team, there is still severe opposition against the new law by highly religious conservatives. Although women must be allowed to take part to stop Saudi Arabia being disqualified, their rulers have said they will try to maintain the ban on women participation in sports and representing the country due to the worries of highly religious conservatives. It is an unpopular new legislation, but hopefully it will be part of the growing liberality for women in the country, as they are now part of the country’s council and women outnumber the men who are graduating from University. King Abdullah may be a better candidate for Saudi’s future than what the rest of world originally thought. This is definitely a step in the right direction for women’s rights in the kingdom.
Image: Singapore 2012 Youth Olympic Games on Flickr