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(London) – Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would not send any female athletes to compete in the London Olympics despite its recent pledge to do so highlights the need to overturn the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Olympic Committee should bar Saudi Arabia from participating in the 2012 Games because of its clear violation of the Olympic Charter.

With two weeks until the start of the Olympics, the pan-Arab Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat announced that “[no] female team taking part in the three fields” for which male Saudi athletes have qualified – track, equestrian, and weightlifting – will represent the kingdom at the London Games. This announcement leaves Saudi Arabia the only country that will not send female athletes to the London Olympics. Qatar and Brunei – which, like Saudi Arabia, fielded only all-male teams at previous Olympics – have confirmed that their teams in London will include women, and indeed have embraced sport for women, with Qatar hosting the 2011 Arab Games with female participation.

“It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t find a woman athlete – it’s that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging,”said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But there is still time for Saudi Arabia to do the right thing and allow women to participate in the London Games by including women in the ‘universality’ slots that don’t require advance qualification.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) allows so-called universality slots in track and field and other sports for countries that are under-represented at the Games.

On June 24, 2012, the Saudi Embassy in London had said that the country’s National Olympic Committee will “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify.” Human Rights Watch had described this announcement as an “important step forward,” but cautioned that “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.

“Saudi Arabia is poised to give the international sporting community a black eye, by sending only men to march behind its flag at the London Games,” Worden said. “The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia broke its promise, is breaking the rules, and should absolutely not be allowed to participate in the London 2012 Games while excluding women from its team.”

Failure to allow women to play sports violates the Olympic Charter, which prohibits gender discrimination, and should trigger barring Saudi Arabia from participating in the London Games. Human Rights Watch called on the International Olympic Committee to uphold its own rules, as it did by barring Taliban-run Afghanistan from the 2000 Games for not allowing women to take part in any sport. The IOC should also set a timeline and benchmarks for introducing physical education for girls in public and private schools, allowing the creation of women’s gyms and sports clubs, and creating women’s sections in the Sports Ministry and the National Olympic Committee.

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. This type of discrimination is just one aspect of deeply entrenched policies that violate women’s rights more broadly in the kingdom. 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. Strict gender segregation restricts women’s freedom to leave their homes, seek medical care, obtain jobs or education, travel, drive, or go to government offices and courts.

“Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory policies toward women are at the root of its failure to send female athletes to the London Games,” Worden said. “The kingdom should be barred from the Olympics until it ends the policies that deprive millions of Saudi women and girls of basic rights.”

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