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(London) – 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.

With four weeks until the start of the Olympics, the Saudi Embassy in London said that the country’s National Olympic Committee will “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify.” Failure to allow women to play sports violates the Olympic Charter, which prohibits gender discrimination, and could have triggered Saudi Arabia’s banning from the London Games.

But 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.

“It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But an eleventh hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi officials have said that with the Games now just a few weeks away, the only female competitor at Olympic standard is show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who has lived and trained outside of the country for much of her life.

“The fact that so few women are ‘qualified’ to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country’s restrictions on women’s rights,” said Worden. “There is only one way to reverse this course, and that is to allow sports in schools, gyms for women, and to add women to the Saudi National Olympic Committee immediately.”

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the effective ban on women and girls taking part in sports inside the kingdom, including in state schools.

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.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s worst records on women’s rights. As documented in Human Rights Watch’s report, “Perpetual Minors,” the Saudi government enforces a “male guardianship” system that treats women as minors in all aspects of life. There is strict gender segregation in public, including in the workplace. Male guardianship and gender segregation restrict women’s freedom to leave their homes, seek medical care, participate in public life, drive, and go to government offices and to courts.

“The International Olympic Committee and the international sporting community cannot become complacent because one or two Saudi women are allowed to compete in the London Olympics,” said Worden. “They should work tirelessly to ensure the millions of Saudi women and girls who want to participate in sports and public life are not denied the chance to do so.”

Update 6/25/12: The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) issued a press release stating that Saudi equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas will not be able to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.

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