Karen Dabrowska

Today’s Zaman Article

Originally published: 12th August 2012

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International Olympic Committee accused of supporting Saudi’s gender apartheid


By allowing Saudi Arabia to compete in the 2012 Games the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supporting gender apartheid, Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the No Women No Play campaign and the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), has claimed.

At a London meeting organized in the Houses of Parliament by Lord Avebury, vice chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) on Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid, Al-Ahmed said that Saudi women suffer more in terms of political and social rights and access to sports than black people in South Africa under the apartheid regime. South Africa was banned from taking part in the Olympics, but no action has been taken against the Saudi regime.

No Women No Play was created not only to allow Saudi women to take part in sport, but also to demand political and social rights. Under the current Saudi regime there are no physical education programs for girls in state schools. Their health concerns alone should have been enough for the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympic Games and from any international Olympic event,” Al-Ahmed said. “Twenty-five to 40 percent of Saudi children and 21 percent of Saudi women are overweight or obese. Women in Saudi Arabia have no place to exercise. There are no private clubs. According to international law, access to sport and the right to participate in cultural life is one of the basic rights. The IOC and the London organizing committee have undermined our efforts to improve the health and the lives of women. In fact it is not only a problem in Saudi Arabia, but right across the Muslim world, because if the rights of women in Saudi Arabia are improved it would have an impact throughout the region because Saudi Arabia is a cultural and religious centre for Muslims.

No Women No Play appealed to the IOC on numerous occasions and only received patronizing responses. In one such response the IOC chief of staff, Kristof De Kepala, said: ‘The IOC strives to ensure that the Olympic Games are universal and non discriminatory. Whilst we are aware of the existing challenges, we do not give ultimatums.’ That is not true. We all know what happened to South Africa in the 1960s and what happened to Afghanistan when it was banned in 2000. Kuwait was suspended recently for some election irregularities in elections to the Olympic Committee.” Tim Woodhouse, head of policy of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in the UK, told the meeting that his organization had lobbied the British government and the IOC over the last two years to ensure that Saudi Arabia includes women in their Olympic team.

“So we were very pleased a few weeks ago when the announcement came through that after months of negotiations, rumor and red herrings that Saudi Arabia were going to send two women. It is definitely a symbolic victory for Saudi Arabian women. Simply by entering the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony, two Saudi Arabian women made history. The inclusion of Saudi Arabia alongside female athletes from Brunei and Qatar means that, for the first time since the modern Olympics began, every country will be represented by at least one woman,” Woodhouse said. “However, we are very aware that this decision is more symbolic than revolutionary. Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to encourage women to train and compete in sport.

“To ensure that there is more than just token female representation when the Olympics move to Rio in 2016, the IOC should ensure that the Saudi government really invests in women’s sport over the coming years and reduces the restrictions that women have to overcome in order to participate in sport. The barriers to participation are almost insurmountably high in Saudi Arabia. There is almost no tradition of female participation in sport and female participation is banned in public places and institutions such as schools.” Woodhouse concluded that London 2012 can only be considered a true success if it marks the beginning of a shift in attitudes towards women’s sport the world over. Lord Avebury told the meeting that the obstacles women face in competitive sports are just one example of the discrimination against women in Saudi life generally.

Commenting on human rights in Saudi Arabia in general Lord Avebury said: “Criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in the international media is muted with the current discussion focused on discrimination in sport being an unusual exception. This is because local human rights defenders and NGOs hardly exist, and have to be very careful what they say. There is no stream of allegations from Saudi Arabia such as there is from Bahrain, for instance, on the Internet. The one major exception to the prevailing silence is in the case of migrant workers, of whom there are 8 million, a higher number than the native labor force. Cases of violence against migrant domestics occasionally get to the courts, and the victims of abuse, who are almost entirely women, complain in their thousands to their embassies about being forced to work very long hours for little or no pay, forced confinement, food deprivation and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse. No doubt thousands of Saudi women suffer the same kinds of abuse without having any agency outside their household to which they can take their complaints.”