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A Leap Forward for Saudi Arabia

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In the coming weeks, all eyes will be on young Saudi Sarah Attar, who will compete in the 800 meter, and her fellow countrywoman, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in judo. Their entrance into the Olympic arena represents a triumph for Saudis and non-Saudis alike: London 2012 marks the first time that female athletes from Saudi Arabia have been allowed by the Kingdom to compete in the Olympic Games. This milestone puts Muslim women center stage, highlighting their increasing empowerment but also the continuing limitations on their rights in many regions. Islamic regimes are increasingly finding themselves torn between the desire to uphold domestic policies that restrict the movements of women, and the desire for full-fledged membership in contemporary international society. The Saudi case suggests that a combination of top-down international pressure and grassroots activism may lead to changes to even the most dogmatic of domestic policies.

Saudi Arabia is a newcomer to the Olympic level of sporting competition, only winning its first Olympic medal in 2000 when Hadi Souan Somayli won silver in the 400-meter men's hurdles. Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Qatar are the only nations that have never previously entered women in Olympic Games, although both Qatar and Brunei have sent women to the Islamic Women's Games.

Saudi women have little or no way to access the resources necessary to train for Olympic-level competition. Saudi men and boys can attend any of the 153 official sports clubs, regulated by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, as well as innumerable gyms and spas at hotels. Saudi women and girls, in contrast, are entirely excluded from using these facilities.

Even the most influential Saudis have been unable to overcome the gender divide. In 2009, techno-billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal sponsored Saudi Arabia's first female soccer team, the Jeddah Kings, provoking such intense public backlash that he was forced to dismantle the team. Today, only Jeddah United exists -- an independent and private female sports company with a female basketball team that functions without royal patronage or government support.

Lack of access to any kind of athletic instruction or training facilities is a huge barrier to the development of female Saudi athletes. The few who have succeeded at international levels of competition have trained largely outside the Kingdom. The most well-known example is Dalma Malhas, the 20-year-old equestrian who won the bronze medal at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010. It appeared that Malhas was going to be Saudi Arabia's first female Olympian for London 2012, but her mare was injured, disqualifying her entry. She trains mostly in Italy, as did her mother, who also competed in show jumping.

Individual women such as Malhas are important, but the arrival of Saudi women into the Olympic arena is largely the result of the work of human-rights groups and the efforts of individual Saudi citizens to advocate for greater access to sports in the Kingdom. NGOs and individual advocates benefited from the rise in international awareness of social issues in Arab regions that followed the Arab Spring. The convergence of international and domestic pressures on Saudi Arabia proved critical. The International Olympic Committee set clear external standards for the Kingdom to meet on female participation, threatening to bar the entire Saudi team from the Games, while a Human Rights Watch report documented grassroots opposition to the Kingdom's highly unequal internal standards.

The Human Rights Watch report, 'Steps of the Devil': Denial of Women's and Girls' Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia," explains Saudi clerics' religious objections to Saudi women engaging in any sport. The Saudi clergy believes such behavior moves Saudi women down a slippery slope towards the devil. According to the report, Saudi religious scholars claim that allowing Saudi girls and women to enter into sports would invite them to engage in immodest movement, don aberrant clothing, perform in front of spectators, and eventually come into direct contact with unrelated men in mixed settings, all of which leads to immorality and the irreparable desecration of the purity of Saudi women.

Other clerics, such as Sheikh Abdullah-Al Mani, a member of the senior scholars' council and advisor to the Royal Court, have implied that vigorous movement -- particularly that required by basketball and football -- threatens the health of a "virgin girl." This is an especially profound deterrent in the Saudi shame-and-honor-centered culture, which places extraordinary medico-legal value on virginity in unmarried women, as determined by an intact hymen.

Saudi King Abdullah appears open to the messages of such human-rights reports, considering his advancement of many reforms for women, both before and following his ascension to the throne. His decision to allow female participation at the Olympics is another step in the right direction. Related steps include the creation of the first shadow Shura Council for women, the first shelters and hotlines for domestic-abuse and child-abuse victims, the first co-educational post-graduate university (the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), and the promise of municipal voting rights for women in years to come.

Some complain that these reforms are largely symbolic. Symbolic moves, however, can be extremely powerful, triggering real and widespread change. Symbolic power may be even more significant when made by the leader of a country that is a religious and political focal point for much of the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia's decision to allow female Saudi athletes to compete in the Olympics is a step forward on several levels. First, for female athletes already primed to compete, a favorable decision only 31 days before the commencement of the Games came as a relief. Second, this ruling will also benefit the majority of Saudi women by making it more difficult for the regime to justify gender inequality in access to sport, and, perhaps, in other spheres of Saudi society. In choosing to acquiesce to the gender-equality standards of the Olympic Games, a state that has appeared largely immune to external or internal pressure in the past -- by way of its immense wealth and entrenched cultural mores -- now shows a significant degree of vulnerability to international norms.

Whatever the motives behind their recent decision, the Saudis have clearly yielded to the demands of the outside world and, more importantly, to their own increasingly influential vox populi. When Saudi female athletes march with their nation's flag overhead, it will be cause for celebration for the sports community, and for women everywhere. The Saudi women athletes who travel to the London 2012 Games, no matter how few in number and how far from winning a medal, open a door to a wider world for Muslim women: a world of athletic competition, improved health, and greater equality. The international community should work to ensure the names of Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar are publicized around the world, and, most importantly, within Saudi Arabia, so that this milestone is not kept hidden from aspiring Saudi female athletes.

Special thanks to editor Ms. Claire Schacter who invited me to submit this article for publication for OpenCanada for the Canadian International Council where it was first published here.

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