Saudi Women And The Olympics: Why The IOC Mandate Is A Huge Step Forward
11:00 am, August 1st | by Amy Tennery
Earlier this month, after weeks of back-and-forth negotiations, Saudi Arabia announced it would send two women to the Olympic Games. No, it was not Saudi officials’ choice. In the months leading up to the London 2012 games, the International Olympic Committee issued an ultimatum: Send women from your country to the games, or don’t send any athletes at all. It was some tough talk.
Our first instinct was to cheer — hey, it was only two women but at least it was something. But others weren’t so enthused. Saudi Arabia only sends two women to the Olympics, after what was tantamount to a threat from the IOC? Why are we celebrating? And in a way, the naysayers are right. But should we really label this victory a draw? It’s not quite that simple.
It shouldn’t come as a huge shock that women still have it rough in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women cannot travel abroad — nor can they get “major surgery” — without a male guardian’s written approval. They cannot drive, hold public office or vote. In some cases, they are not allowed to leave the house without a male chaperone. What’s more, the male guardianship practice restricts women’s access to education; under the strictest interpretations of the Saudi code women have to get permission for school, too.
With this in mind, why would anyone think the Saudi women’s Olympic participation was “progress?” Two women get to compete in the Olympic games — and only because the IOC strong-armed the country into letting them — and we’re supposed to cheer? (And should it come as any surprise that one of the two women Saudi Arabia begrudgingly sent to the games is a born-and-raised California kid and a current student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where she regularly competes in track events in a tank top and shorts?)
Jocelyne Cesari, the director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University, offered this withering observation in a CNN column this morning:
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents girls from taking part in sports in government schools. Physical education is allowed only in private schools. Women are not allowed to play in official sports clubs or even watch matches in stadiums… It would be tempting to see the Saudi’s decision to include women in the Olympics as a big step forward. But as Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: “An 11th-hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”
And she’s right — Saudi Arabia didn’t choose to send women to the games. In fact, they fought mightily to stop that from happening. There was no moment of revelation for Saudi officials. As far as we know, their attitudes toward Saudi women and sports have remained unchanged.
So why are we celebrating? Because the IOC finally stood up and said this is crap. Cesari is right — this isn’t a big step forward for Saudi Arabia. But this is a big step forward for the IOC.
To be sure, the IOC has had many ugly missteps in recent weeks. Its sex-verification policy and its failure to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre are among the ugliest. Let’s not give them too much credit. But the IOC did do something right for Saudi women and sports.
And the IOC has acted as an agent of change before. A fabulous story from Grantland last week detailed how “generations of South African athletes had moldered while their country suffered the greatest penalty the International Olympic Committee has ever imposed, because their leaders persisted in defending the white minority rule.” The IOC had demanded South Africa “publicly [condemn] apartheid and integrated athletic competitions” in 1964 — the country refused. And there, on the “World’s Stage” the IOC dressed down South Africa and made a public statement on racism: South Africa didn’t compete in the games again until 1992.
Will Saudi Arabia change its attitudes toward women overnight? Of course not. But let’s not pretend the IOC doesn’t wield tremendous power — and let’s not miss this opportunity to celebrate when it used that power for women.