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Saudi Women Finally Have An Olympic Win

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Update to article, June 26th: "Dalma Rushi Malhas, the Saudi Arabian rider who won individual bronze at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010, will not be competing at London 2012, the FEI confirmed today. FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos said, "...regretfully the Saudi Arabian rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas has not attained the minimum eligibility standards and consequently will not be competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games. However, we understand that the IOC has a number of other female athletes from Saudi Arabia in other sports who are currently under consideration."

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In a sea of bad news there is finally a cause for some celebration. It would seem that sometimes being part of a chorus of international disapproval and pressure, can have an impact after all.

After appearing it would be intractable on the issue, with just 33 days to go until the Olympic Games begin in London, Saudi Arabia finally capitulated. It agreed to allow its women to compete and the London Olympics will thus be the first Olympics where a woman will feature on every team.

Until the announcement yesterday, of the more than two hundred countries attending the games, Saudi Arabia was the only nation that was not bringing a woman. The other two previous holdouts, Qatar and Brunei, had already bowed to global opinion for the 2012 Games. When Iran, which sent its first female athlete in 1996 and Bahrain, in 2000, are both showing you up, it's long overdue for you to step up.

Of course we must respect religion, however nothing in Islam mandates the forbidding of women playing sport. Women can now do so, wearing modest, loose-fitting garments and "a sports hijab," a scarf covering the hair but not the face, in all Muslim and Arab countries, apart from Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, sport remains beyond the reach of most females because of systematic discrimination. Two thirds of Saudi girls are thus overweight or obese and diabetes cases amongst them are increasing.

The charter of the Olympics' ruling body, the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, bans any "form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement." Afghanistan was thus banned from the 2000 Sydney games, for not only its oppression of women, but specifically, laws forbidding them to play sports at all. This has led to accusations that the oil rich Saudi Arabia, which has recently done a $3 billion arms deal with Britain and a $60 billion arms deal with the US, had yet again become a graveyard of ethical policy.

But this pronouncement by Saudi Arabia proves that the complaints made by human rights organizations and so many in the media, including myself, do have an influence. A Saudi official speaking to the BBC said: "Partly because of the mounting criticism we woke up and realized we had to deal with this."

Contrary to every effort by Saudi's Conservative religious clerics to thwart the possibility, Saudi Arabia does have one world-class female athlete who can now compete, Dalma Rushdi Malhas. An equestrian, she has wealthy, progressive parents, who allow her to train in Europe.

Dalma's appearance in London, matters. The Olympics is symbolic -- its message transcends sport. African American Jesse Owens' winning his four gold medals in the 1936 games, held in Nazi Germany and the power of the Paralympics are but two of multiple examples of this.

The Olympics blazes a trail. Women athletes were first allowed to compete at the 1900 Paris Olympics. 79 years later Britain got its first female Prime Minister - the two are not entirely unconnected.

A Saudi woman being allowed to represent her country is not just about sports. Saudi's previous ban on their women being a part of their Olympic team is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for violations against their rights. The women of Saudi Arabia can't drive. Without a man's permission they may not marry, work or travel.

But this step is a start. One that Saudi women can and no doubt will, build on. King Faisal, who reigned from 1964 to 1975, insisted on implementing education for girls. Now, despite a still imperfect system, Saudi women graduates outnumber their male counterparts.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, "the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century." The eleventh hour decision by Saudi Arabia to let its female athletes compete in the Olympics is a timely reminder to us that we must continue the fight to finish it.

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