What century is it again? Saudi Arabia sparked international outrage this week after refusing to send any women to participate in the Asian Games. They are sending 199 men instead to participate in the multi-sport event, to be held in South Korea later this month. The Asian games are held every four years for athletes across Asia. This move has been described as “a backward step for women’s participation in sport”.
Saudi Arabia is the only country among the 45 competing nations at the Asian Games, which start in South Korea on Friday under the slogan “Diversity Shines Here”, to have selected an all-male team.
According to Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, no woman has yet “reached a level” for international competition.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) that organises the Asian Games, said there were no rules forcing countries to pick females but he was surprised Saudi Arabia had not chosen any after being widely applauded for including women at the last Olympics.
“Saudi Arabia broke through the ice when they participated at the London Olympics with a female,” he told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
“It showed they are ready, they are capable to have women participate.
“I don’t know why they are not participating here, maybe for technical reasons.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, condemned the decision, saying: “Refusing to send women to the Asian Games casts doubts on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions.
“Women’s sports have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia. Now is the time for Saudi Arabia’s sports officials to lay down concrete plans for female sports in girls’ schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments, both at home and abroad.”
A member of the Saudi Olympic committee said on September 4 that the kingdom plans to send women to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But Saudi officials should make clear what steps they are taking to ensure that women are included in other future competitions and are able to participate in sports generally.
Under international pressure, Saudi Arabia included two women in its team at the 2012 Olympics in London – Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field – although neither met qualifying standards. They participated under the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s “universality” clause, which allows athletes who do not meet qualifying standards to compete when their participation is deemed important “for reasons of equality.” The two women were still required to be accompanied by their male guardians and to wear appropriate clothing.
Al-Mishal’s statement to Reuters says that Saudi Arabia is preparing to send women to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 “on a good scale,” but that they are not yet ready to compete in Incheon. “Technically, we weren’t ready to introduce any ladies and the new president of our Olympic committee (Prince Abdullah bin Musaed bin Abdulaziz) rejected sending women to only participate – he wanted them to compete,” al-Mishal is quoted as saying.
Al-Mishal also said that the kingdom is focused on training women to compete in only four sports – equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery – which he says are “accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia.”
“Limiting women’s participation to specific sports is yet another example of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women to compete on an equal basis with men,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia should allow women to compete in sports across the board and offer them training equivalent to the training Saudi men receive.”
Human Rights Watch documented in its February 2012 report, “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that, as a matter of policy, still effectively bars girls from taking part in sport in government schools. There is no state sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees restricted to men. Discrimination against girls and women in sports still takes place at multiple levels, including:
- The continued lack of physical education for girls in state schools;
- The lack of representation on national sports bodies, as well as the country’s Olympic Committee, which means there are no competitive sports events for Saudi women athletes in the country; and
- The denial of government financial support for Saudi sportswomen in national, regional, or international competitions.
“Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, said.