Saudi Arabia's Jeddah United (in white) shake hands with Jordan's Al Reyadeh before their friendly basketball game in Amman, Jordon on April 21, 2009.

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s failure to include women on its team to compete in the Asian Games in South Korea in September 2014 is a backward step for women’s participation in sport. A member of the Saudi Olympic committee said on September 4 that the kingdom plans to send women to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But Saudi officials should make clear what steps they are taking to ensure that women are included in other future competitions and are able to participate in sports generally.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia’s 2014 Asian Games team will not include any women because none have yet reached a level for international competition. Under international pressure, Saudi Arabia included two women in its team at the 2012 Olympics in London – Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field – although neither met qualifying standards. They participated under the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s “universality” clause, which allows athletes who do not meet qualifying standards to compete when their participation is deemed important “for reasons of equality.” The two women were still required to be accompanied by their male guardians and to wear appropriate clothing.

“Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over – Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Refusing to send women to the Asian Games casts doubts on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions.”

Saudi Arabia will send a team of 199 men to the 2014 Asian Games, a multi-sport event held every four years for athletes from across Asia. The competition will be in Incheon, South Korea from September 19 to October 4.

Al-Mishal’s statement to Reuters says that Saudi Arabia is preparing to send women to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 “on a good scale,” but that they are not yet ready to compete in Incheon. “Technically, we weren't ready to introduce any ladies and the new president of our Olympic committee (Prince Abdullah bin Musaed bin Abdulaziz) rejected sending women to only participate – he wanted them to compete,” al-Mishal is quoted as saying.

Al-Mishal also said that the kingdom is focused on training women to compete in only four sports – equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery – which he says are “accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia.”

“Limiting women’s participation to specific sports is yet another example of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women to compete on an equal basis with men,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia should allow women to compete in sports across the board and offer them training equivalent to the training Saudi men receive.”

Despite the refusal to send women to compete in Incheon, Saudi Arabia has taken limited steps to lift the ban on women’s participation in sports internally since 2012, Human Rights Watch said.

In April 2014, the Shura Council, the country’s consultative assembly, directed the Education Ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in Saudi public schools. The move opens the way for legislation that could end the ban on all sports for girls in public schools.

Saudi authorities ruled in May 2013 that female students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Education Ministry. On May 22, 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry requesting a timetable for the adoption of a proposed national strategy to promote sports for girls at all levels of education, but did not receive a response.

Saudi authorities also began allowing licenses for private sports clubs for women in March 2013, and the first club opened in the Eastern Province city of Khobar in June 2013.

As Human Rights Watch documented in its February 2012 report, “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that, as a matter of policy, still effectively bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees restricted to men. Discrimination against girls and women in sports still takes place at multiple levels, including:

  • The continued lack of physical education for girls in state schools;
  • The lack of representation on national sports bodies, as well as the country’s Olympic Committee, which means there are no competitive sports events for Saudi women athletes in the country; and
  • The denial of government financial support for Saudi sportswomen in national, regional, or international competitions.

These restrictions violate Saudi Arabia’s international obligations and clearly contravene the Olympic Charter’s non-discrimination clause, Human Rights Watch said.

In spite of limited reforms, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or even a son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve job offers to adult women or some hospitals from insisting on approval from a male guardian before they undertake certain medical procedures for women. Women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.

“Women’s sports have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said. “Now is the time for Saudi Arabia’s sports officials to lay down concrete plans for female sports in girls’ schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments, both at home and abroad.”