Views from Human Rights Watch (HRW)'s Middle East/North Africa division uncover the severe obstacles to including women and girls in sport in Saudi Arabia. 

As the countdown to the London 2012 Olympic Games advances, the International Olympic Committee has done a lot of talking, but taken no action to address Saudi Arabia’s persistent flouting of IOC membership rules. Those rules state that sport is the right of every person and that discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or other factors is incompatible with Olympic values.

Support for women and girls' sport in Saudi
Yet as Human Rights Watch has documented, Saudi Arabia effectively bans sports for women and girls: girls receive no physical education classes in government schools, its 153 government-supported sports clubs are men-only, and its National Olympic Committee and 29 national sports federations have no women’s sections or hold women’s championships. Since 2009, the government has closed down “unlicensed” gyms for women. In sum, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that puts sports beyond the reach or ordinary women and girls.

IOC approach towards gender-based discrimination in Saudi sport
Despite women’s systematic exclusion, the IOC has primarily focused on persuading Saudi to send a female athlete to the London 2012 Games, ignoring the fate of nine million Saudi women and girls excluded from sport. In 2009, the IOC became an observer at the United Nations, which in its International Year of Sport and Physical Education 2005 vowed to promote gender equality and women’s equality.

The IOC has ruled out excluding Saudi Arabia from Olympic participation, saying it prefers dialogue. Yet the dialogue has had no concrete achievements so far—and allowing a member to consistently flout membership rules undercuts the IOC’s commitment to its mission of upholding those rules. In the past, the IOC has acted more decisively, excluding Afghanistan in 1999 for discrimination against women, among other factors, and South Africa in 1964 for racial discrimination.

Human Rights Watch recommends
There is a principled case for conditioning Saudi Olympic participation on an end to discriminatory policies. Human Rights Watch recommends the IOC to lay out to Saudi Arabia what it will take to avoid a ban, and shore up membership support for its position, especially among Muslim and Gulf countries.

Christoph Wilcke is Senior Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch