DUBAI — It’s only just the runup to the London Olympics, and Saudi women athletes seem to have already suffered a near miss. Last week Saudi Arabia announced that women would be allowed to compete in the games, a landmark change from the ultra-strict Islamic mores that ban women from public competition. But then the one Saudi woman set to compete in London, the equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, had to bow out due to an injured horse.With sports as with other matters, women’s rights are the barometer for change in Saudi Arabia.
As the stopwatch clicks toward the opening ceremony, Saudi Arabia is under pressure to find other female athletes to compete. But having banned its women and girls from engaging in sports at home, finding one who’s had access to Olympic-level training is a long stretch.
With sports as with other matters, women’s rights are the barometer for change in Saudi Arabia. But the issue of Saudi women in the Olympics also marks a milestone in how the kingdom tackles demands for change.
For roughly a decade, the dynamics have worked like this: for fear of a conservative backlash, King Abdullah has taken careful and coordinated steps toward reform. With the Olympics issue, however, it is public pressure, inside the country and out, that seems to have changed official policy.
Saudi rulers prefer to shift course on policy when they want and how they want rather than be seen as responding to popular demands. The concessions they do make, like appointing more women to government posts and granting women the theoretical right to vote in future elections, aren’t the ones activists specifically demand. It’s as if they don’t want to set a precedent that would effectively reward protests or public campaigns.
But this time, after a wave of international pressure from human rights groups and an active debate in Saudi Arabia about women in sports, public pressure moved policy. Human Rights Watch, among others, lobbied the International Olympic Committee to pressure Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete. (Gender discrimination violates the Olympic Charter.)
On the domestic front, women activists like Lina al-Maeena, who coaches the Jeddah United basketball team, are looking for ways that women can play sports while respecting Islamic norms. Her team plays in track-suit abayas that match their traditional headscarves.
“Saudi Arabia is in flux,” said Theodore Karasik, a Saudi watcher based in Dubai. Saudi royals do seem to be in a progressive phase, relative to the country’s past standards, and it’s likely to expand given the current politics of Saudi succession. The recent death of Crown Prince Nayef, long feared as an arch-conservative, elevated his more liberal half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, as heir to the throne.
And just as Saudi royals are granting women more rights, Saudi women are growing bolder and claiming more rights for themselves. They famouslyboycotted lingerie shops until male sales clerks were replaced with females ones. And a circle of Saudi women writers is trying to steer the national agenda, rousing debate around issues like child marriage with their newspaper columns.
Traveling in Jeddah a few months back, I was taken by the relaxed state of play. More women than I’d ever seen were strolling the malls and seaside boulevards with their hair blowing in the wind, the compulsory headscarf hanging lose around their necks. If they were worried about the religious police, they didn’t show it. And if the religious police were around, they weren’t taking any issue. At a dinner party in a private home, men and women mixed freely and ladies left their abayas at the door.
Even if the Olympic decree is a token gesture, Saudi women say they’ll to use it to their advantage. Off the Olympic momentum, they’re making a push for sports in schools and athletic federations for women. It would be a bigger win than anything they get in London.