February 15, 2012

1. Why is HRW focusing on discrimination against women in sports?

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records on women’s rights, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented, notably in its report “Perpetual Minors” of 2008. The government does not allow women to drive, and it enforces a male guardianship system that treats women as minors in all aspects of life. In addition, there is strict gender segregation in public, including in the workplace. Male guardianship and gender segregation restrict women’s freedom to leave the house, to work, to participate in public life, and even to go to government offices and to courts.

A focus on sports has two advantages for advancing women’s rights and welfare in the kingdom. Firstly, denying women the ability to practice sports is increasingly recognized as detrimental to Saudi public health, and, with the planning in 2011 and 2012 for a new National School Sports Strategy, there is a real opportunity to persuade Saudi officials to include physical education for girls. Secondly, the ability to practice sports is intimately tied to the fundamental problems of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia: how can women exercise without being able to drive to sports facilities; how can they travel for matches and tournaments while always needing the approval of a male guardian?  Ending discrimination in sports has the potential to widen cracks in the guardianship system and other discriminatory practices.

2. Do any women currently play sports in Saudi Arabia?

Yes.  A few women in Saudi Arabia do play sports, but they are limited to exercising at home or in a few expensive gyms, or playing in underground leagues that are segregated by gender. Saudi Arabia may be the only country in the world where girls, unlike boys, do not receive physical education in government schools, and that has no state programs for supporting competitive female athletes. Besides facing discrimination in schools and competitive sports, Saudi women also encounter obstacles when exercising for their health or playing team sports for fun. No women's sports clubs exist, and even exercise gyms have to masquerade as "health clubs," usually attached to hospitals, in order to receive a commercial license, which men’s gyms do not have to do.

3. What are the Saudi government’s objections to women playing sports?

Speaking to the Saudi television channel Al Eqtisadiah, grand mufti Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest official religious authority, declared, “Women should be housewives,” and “There is no need for them to engage in sports.” Other Saudi clerics have said they fear that once women engage in sports, they will shed modest Islamic dress and mingle unnecessarily with men. Some Saudi clerics have expressed the view that engaging in sports can cause women to lose their virginity. There are other Saudi clerics, however, who view sports for women as a religious necessity, especially in light of increased rates of obesity and related diseases.

4. What is the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia?

The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia effectively treats adult women like legal minors who are not entitled to make decisions about their lives and well-being. Women cannot work, travel, study, marry, or sometimes even open a bank account, without the permission of their male guardian. Saudi women are prevented from accessing government agencies that have not established female sections unless they have a male representative. The need to establish separate office spaces for women is a disincentive to hiring female employees, and female students are often relegated to unequal facilities offering them unequal academic opportunities.

5. Do other countries restrict women from participating in the Olympics as well?

Only two countries besides Saudi Arabia have never  sent women athletes to the Olympic games: Qatar and Brunei. In the summer of 2011, Qatar announced it hoped to send up to four female athletes to the 2012 games.

6. What is the role of the International Olympic Committee?

The primary audience for our message is the Saudi government, Saudi sporting officials, and the Saudi public. It is Saudi officials who can today start opening sporting facilities to women and end discrimination. The International Olympic Committee also has a role in upholding Olympic sporting values as embodied in the Olympic Charter. One of the five “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” bans “discrimination of any kind,” which includes discrimination against women. From 1964 until the end of apartheid in 1990, the IOC banned South African athletes from taking part in the Games because of discrimination against black athletes. In 1999, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, the IOC suspended that country’s National Olympic Committee, in part because of discrimination against women in sports.

7. What happened with Afghanistan in 1999?

In 1999, The International Olympic Committee banned the Afghan Olympic Committee from participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics after a Taliban appointee took over the Afghan National Olympic Committee (NOC) and all but barred women from sports. The IOC found these measures violated its Charter, which prohibits political interference in sports and discrimination against women. The Taliban measures took place in a broader environment in which the Taliban executed people in the main Kabul sports stadium and oppressed women and girls in other spheres, such as by banning the education of girls. Then-director-general of the IOC, Francois Carrard, explained that “the Taliban-run NOC, which among other things, prohibited women to compete in sports, [is in] violation of the Olympic Charter for discrimination in sport.”  After the fall of the Taliban, Afghan athletes, including women, were readmitted to the Olympic Games.

8. What if Saudi Arabia does allow a female equestrian to compete in 2012? (*Please see correction / additional information at the bottom of this page*).

Saudi equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, may attend the 2012 Olympics in London.  Malhas may be able to participate in London thanks to an invitation issued by an international sports federation. The Saudi National Olympic Committee has indicated it will not interfere with a woman athlete attending on the basis of an invitation. Saudi Arabia could even add Malhas to its team, hoping to use her attendance to diffuse criticism over its discriminatory policies.  In either case, Malhas’ participation would be a welcome, but small step, and should not blind the IOC to the need for a much more systemic plan to end discrimination against Saudi women in sports. At present, Malhas’s participation has not been confirmed.

9. Would conservative dress like the veil interfere with Saudi women’s ability to practice sports?

No. Many Muslim women compete at high levels wearing conservative dress, and headscarves are banned in only a few sports, like football (soccer), when played according to international sporting guidelines.

10. Can international bodies such as the United Nations do more to pressure Saudi Arabia into ending its discrimination against women and girls in sports, among other areas?

Yes. Two UN human rights committees—the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child—should hold Saudi Arabia to its treaty obligations, which provide for the right of women and girls, without discrimination, to practice sports as part of the right to cultural activity and of the right to health.Furthermore, the member states of the UN Human Rights Council should assess in the next Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record (in 2013) the kingdom’s progress in ending discrimination in sports against women and girls.

11. Are you calling for a boycott or a ban? And would that not amount to punishing male Saudi athletes who have worked hard to compete؟

We are not calling on anyone to boycott the 2012 Olympic Games, but recommend that the IOC condition Saudi Arabia’s participation on the country taking immediate and effective steps to end discrimination in sports against women, in clear violation of the Olympic Charter. Our goal is to enlist Saudi athletes and concerned citizens to urge their government to reform its policies that block women and girls from meaningful participation in sport in the kingdom. 

* Please note the following correction with regard to Answer #8, below: 

Saudi Arabia could select Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, for its team, hoping to use her attendance to diffuse criticism over its discriminatory policies, but only if Malhas achieves the required minimum eligibility standards. Malhas’ participation would be a welcome, but small step, and should not blind the IOC to the need for a much more systemic plan to end discrimination against Saudi women in sports. At present, Malhas’s participation has not been confirmed. Also, another female athlete from another sport may be invited to attend the 2012 Olympics in London as an individual athlete and not a member of the official delegation. The Saudi National Olympic Committee has indicated it will not interfere with an individual woman athlete attending on the basis of an invitation.*