When Saudi men and women sit down to watch the London Olympic Games later this year they will likely only get to see male athletes representing their country. This is because of an effective ban on women’s participation in national competitive sports.
The ban is part of a Saudi government policy that severely limits the ability of women to practice sport, to the point of prohibiting it in many contexts. The policy reflects the predominant conservative view that opening sports to women and girls will lead to immorality: “steps of the devil,” as one prominent religious scholar put it. In 2009 and 2010 the government went as far as closing private gyms for women, prompting a campaign against the ban by a group of women under the slogan “Let her get fat.”
The topic of sports for women and girls has become hotly debated in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Saudi government statements have veered between vague promises of liberalization and outright rejection of expanding the limited existing opportunities for women and girls to engage in physical exercise and sports. But in terms of policies and practice, the Saudi government continues to flagrantly deny women and girls their right to practice physical education in schools and to practice recreational and competitive sports more generally.
Discrimination against women and girls in sport is only one part of the broader pattern of systematic violations of women’s and girls’ rights in Saudi Arabia. Under the system of male guardianship, Saudi women of all ages need their male guardian’s often written consent to receive certain health care; to work, to study, to marry, and to travel. Male guardians can be fathers, husbands, brothers, or even minor sons. In 2009 the Saudi government accepted a recommendation by the United Nations Human Rights Council to abolish the system but has so far failed to do so. Saudi Arabia is also the only country in the world which bans women from driving, a ban which a small number of women in Saudi Arabia have recently started to defy.
Discrimination in sport against women and girls is most apparent in the absence of physical education classes for girls in state schools. Saudi Arabia introduced state schooling for girls in the early 1960s, but never added physical education classes to the girls’ curriculum. The government does tolerate physical education for girls in private schools, but even in those private schools which offer it the quality of coaching and facilities is uneven, and there appears to be no set curriculum.
In 2011 the Saudi government announced plans to introduce physical education for girls in state schools. However, the details of the plan, including the timing of its implementation and whether girls will be able to access the same level of physical education as boys, remain unclear.
Prior to the closure of women’s gyms in 2009 and 2010 on the grounds that they were unlicensed, Saudi women had made limited progress in recent years in establishing and frequenting gyms and fitness centers, sometimes set up in private homes. Since the closure of the gyms, the government has failed to issue commercial licenses that would allow them to reopen.
The government does now allow “health clubs” for women. But these do not offer the variety of different sporting activities that is widely available for men, including team sports and athletics. Furthermore, these health clubs, which are often attached to hospitals, are few in number and inaccessible to many women because of the high cost of membership fees.
Although Saudi Arabia boasts 153 official sports clubs regulated and supported by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare (GPYW), a government agency, offering individual and team sports, in practice these clubs remain closed to women. The female basketball team section of Jeddah United appears to be the only exception. Jeddah United is a private sports company not among the 153 sports clubs.
Small private initiatives to hold sporting tournaments for women and girls continue away from the public eye, but these are tolerated rather than supported by the government. A leading Saudi businessman, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, sponsored Saudi Arabia’s first women’s soccer team, the Jeddah Kings, in 2009. But he abandoned the effort when media coverage of a women’s soccer tournament that year involving the Jeddah Kings and five other private teams caused a public backlash, with a hostile reaction to the players by some conservative Saudis.
Within Saudi Arabia, the debate about sports for women and girls does not focus on rights or discrimination but rather on the health benefits derived from an active lifestyle. In recent years rates of obesity and diabetes have risen significantly in Saudi Arabia, especially among women and girls. Between two-thirds to three-quarters of adults and 25 to 40 percent of children and adolescents are estimated to be overweight or obese.
Being overweight is a significant factor in the increased prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. These diseases, which can develop at a young age and in some cases disproportionally affect girls and women, also represent a significant proportion of mortality in Saudi Arabia, and form the majority of non-communicable diseases.
Opponents of sports for women and girls put forward the “slippery slope” argument that once women start to exercise, they will shed modest clothing, spend “unnecessary” time out of the house, and have increase possibilities for mingling with men. Others propose endless conditions for women and girls practicing sport (for example, that they must wear modest clothing and engage in sports away from the prying eyes of men) that perpetuate the unequal and discriminatory conditions that limit the ability of women and girls to practice sports.
The Saudi National Olympic Committee (NOC) is responsible, together with the 29 recognized Saudi sporting federations, for organizing competitive tournaments and selecting athletes and teams from the GPYW-regulated clubs and elsewhere to represent the kingdom internationally. The Saudi NOC does not have a women’s section, and neither do any of the 29 sporting federations. Saudi Arabia has never sponsored a woman athlete in an international competition. One Saudi woman, the equestrian athlete Dalma Muhsin, participated in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games, where she won a bronze medal. However, Muhsin did not benefit from official sponsorship, nor was she nominated through a process of national competitive trials.
In order to allow all countries to send male and female competitors to the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reserves limited places for male and female athletes who are not required to meet the qualifying standards in the swimming and track and field (athletics) categories. But Saudi Arabia has never taken advantage of this system to nominate female athletes for the Olympic Games, and it has given no indication that it will send any female athletes to the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries worldwide that have never nominated a female athlete to the Olympic Games—Brunei and Qatar being the other two. Qatar, the host of the 2006 Asian Games, has begun to develop a program for women in sport, and both Qatar and Brunei have sent female athletes to regional and international competitions such as the Islamic Women’s Games. Saudi Arabia has never done so.
The rights of women and girls to physical education and to participate in sport is internationally recognized in treaties Saudi Arabia has signed, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These treaties prohibit discrimination against women and girls.
The charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prohibits discrimination against women in sport, yet the IOC has not demanded that Saudi Arabia allow women to practice sports as a condition for the kingdom’s participation in the Olympic Games.
As a condition for allowing Saudi Arabia to participate in the games the International Olympic Committee should make it clear to the Saudi National Olympic Committee (NOC) that it should, before the start of the London Olympic Games, set out a timeline for: forming a women’s section within the NOC; providing funds for women’s sport; and starting an outreach campaign to attract Saudi women to competitive sports. The IOC should also make it clear to the NOC that the nomination of a woman in the track and field (athletics) universality slot is a condition for Saudi Arabia’s participation.
More generally, in order to address the systematic discrimination against women in sport, Saudi Arabia should, within one year, set out a clear strategy and timeline for rolling out physical education for girls in government and private schools and launch a public outreach campaign to emphasize the right of girls to physical education. The strategy should contain measureable benchmarks, including: the building of facilities; types of physical education offered at each level of education; weekly class hours spent on physical education; and training teachers of physical education for girls.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia should lift its ban on licensing gyms for women, and instruct the General Presidency for Sport and Youth Welfare (GPSYW) to open a women’s section and to demand the admission of women members in all sports clubs it oversees in the kingdom.
Together with the country’s 29 sporting federations, the NOC should develop national competitions for women and begin to form national women’s teams to participate in regional and international sporting events.