Saudi Arabia’s Olympic females ‘not enough’

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia enters the stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. Attar is one of the first female athletes to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics. (Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch says more needs to be done to address gender discrimination

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 The participation of two Saudi female athletes in the London Olympics is an important first step but does not go far enough in addressing entrenched problems of gender discrimination in the kingdom, Human Rights Watch has said.

The US rights group said in a statement that Saudi Arabia should end the effective ban preventing millions of women and girls from practicing sports inside the kingdom.

Two female athletes will represent Saudi Arabia: Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field.

“That two women will compete for the Saudi team for the first time in the history of the Olympics is a first step,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

“But the race for gender equality in Saudi Arabia cannot be won until the millions of women and girls who are now deprived of athletic opportunities can also exercise their right to practice sports.”

On July 5, an official from the Saudi sports ministry denied a request by private citizens to hold a women’s Ramadan sports tournament featuring basketball, volleyball, and football (soccer), HRW said, adding that a Sports Ministry official gave no reason for denying permission for the tournament.

Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools.

The ban on women’s private, for-fee and fully equipped sports clubs has forced women to largely restrict themselves to “health” facilities, usually attached to hospitals that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports, it added.

It said membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls.

“These forms of gender discrimination clearly violate the Olympic Charter, which states in the 6th Fundamental Principle of Olympism that ‘any form of discrimination’ including on the basis of gender, is ‘incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement’,” the statement added.

“Saudi women and girls cannot play sports – and they cannot even watch sports in stadiums,” Worden said.

Human Rights Watch said it has long urged the IOC to use its leverage with Saudi Arabia to get the country’s sports leaders to conform to the values and principles of the Olympic Movement by adopting policies that will benefit all Saudi women and girls.

It said that Saudi Arabia must establish a timeline for introducing physical education as a mandatory subject for girls in public and private schools.

It should also allow the creation of women’s gyms and sports clubs.

“The world should cheer Wujdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar as they make history in London, but we must also remember millions of women and girls inside Saudi Arabia who can only watch from the sidelines,” Worden said.

“The IOC can move the ball down the field for women’s sports by making it clear for future Olympics that if you don’t play by the rules, you should not play at all.”

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