Saudi Arabia's Female Olympic Athletes

07/31/2012 08:12 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2012

Zoë Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia and is the author of the new book Kingdom of Strangers, which is set in the country.

Saudi Arabia's decision to send women to the Olympics has forced open a very public window into the complicated state of affairs for women in that Muslim country.

Despite its pagan origins and its firmly Western historical context, the Olympics is a fully international event that represents the globalization of the athlete. So when a country like Saudi Arabia remains an outlier, either by refusing to send women to the event, or by simply not having enough qualified candidates, it says an enormous amount about that country's attitude toward women. It puts Saudi, in some minds, on a tier of shame below even countries like Iran and Afghanistan that practice similar discrimination against women -- but still manage to send women to global sporting events.

If there's one thing I've learned in twenty years of observing this country, it's that if you want to understand it, you'd better get used to its contradictions. And there are plenty. In Jeddah, women are not allowed to drive. They are expected to cover themselves modestly when they go out, and they are not allowed to be alone in the company of strange men, which can make all kinds of public transactions difficult, to say the least.

And yet, the city has dozens of health clubs with a vast selection of facilities for women. It has women-only training centers for everything from martial arts to yoga. Despite recent fatwas banning sports teams at girls' schools, young girls continue to play basketball and soccer enthusiastically. Their coaches, who occasionally risk safety and public censure to train them, are like grass-roots activists anywhere, fighting for equal rights with simple but determined actions.

Even in the face of limited physical freedoms and the restrictions against women driving cars and being in public alone, Saudi women have found a way to join those health clubs - sometimes in greater numbers than Saudi men. A burqa and a bunch of fatwas haven't stopped them from getting a good workout, and from continuing to practice all kinds of fitness. They even pole dance. (Don't be shy -- she's covered.)

One might ask then that if Gold's Gym is global, and the Saudi establishment seems to have accepted that, then why don't they send their women to the Olympics? One major reason is that the Olympics are public. They are broadcast around the world. The games are almost the total opposite of the privacy and safety you can find in a women's gym. And this is exactly where the virtue of training clashes brutally with the virtue of modesty.

One of the things I love about Islam is that it tries to value the transcendental and not the material. This belief is applied culturally in many ways -- for example, by covering the body with loose clothing, to avoid revealing your sexy self.

By de-emphasizing the human body -- a value applied to women AND men in Saudi Arabia -- this philosophy states that the body isn't important. Physical beauty isn't important. The matters of the spirit should reign supreme. I don't think you can find anything that more clearly opposes the core values of the Hellenic Olympics if you tried.

What's frustrating is Saudi Arabia often seems to impose this value on women alone. The restrictions that prevent women from driving cars, taking buses and even walking through their cities alone are based on a religious code that preaches modesty for both genders, yet none of those restrictions on physical freedom are enforced on men.

I experienced the effects of segregation myself. When I was twenty-one, I moved to Jeddah to live with my then-husband and his family in a conservative Muslim neighborhood. I came away from the experience feeling ashamed of my body, and it took me years to feel comfortable in a swimsuit again. I had adopted the mindset of my Muslim in-laws and accepted the values that Saudi culture asserted: that I was supposed to hide my body behind voluminous robes, that it was shameful for me to expose any part of myself in public, that it was shameful of me to want to stand out in any way.

Over the past twenty years, I have embraced a mindset that is much more natural to me. I love the human form, I love the Olympics, and I love seeing women and men show their bodies in public. I believe that we should have no shame in revealing our bodies to the world at large.

I respect the transcendental and ascetic value of modesty that is one of Saudi's most interesting cultural attributes. I see Saudi women whose lives revolve around putting their religious values into practice -- generosity, kindness, service to others -- through work and motherhood and philanthropy. For those women, modesty is a deep-seated habit, and serves as a daily reminder of their commitments to causes nobler than the shape of one's ass. I also know Saudi women who will kill for some bling. But most Saudi women, when I ask them, say that they simply want the ability to make a choice.

It's certainly a good thing that Saudis are letting women onto their Olympic team. Unfortunately, the two women who will be competing are not residents of the kingdom, and were only let into the event by special exception. One Saudi female has participated in the Olympics already: Dalma Malhas competed in the youth Olympic games in Singapore, taking home the bronze in equestrian jumping. But once again, she was born in America and trained in London.

This telegraphs a frustrating message to Saudi women, that the only way to develop Olympic-level talents is to leave the country and train in a freer place. What about the home-grown Saudi women who do qualify? And what about the many more women who want to train, but who are prohibited from doing so?

One of my favorite Saudi athletes, and someone I'm sad to see not in the Olympic line-up, is a woman named Alia Alhwiti. [various spellings: Al-Huwaiti, Al-Huwaete]. She's an equestrian rider and an eight-time champion at international events since her first win in 1997. Since then, she has received threats from Saudis and been restricted from competing within the Kingdom. The religious police even attempted to confiscate her passport so she couldn't travel internationally. (Alia now lives in London.)

When asked whether she'd be competing in the Olympics, she says only that "there is still hope". But clearly the Saudis are not jumping at the opportunity.

Saudi Arabia is plainly a culture in transition. It is part of the globalized, Western world, but it staunchly retains its traditional values. Right now, women athletes are on the cutting edge of their culture, but until the Kingdom allows women the freedom to train at home, its victory of sending women to the Olympics will remain a token success.