Symbolism and female Saudi athletes

International pressure on Saudi Arabia to send women athletes to the London Olympics has paid off. But some working to improve the plight of females in sports and life in that country are skeptical it has more than symbolic value. Says Saudi sports website editor Ahmed al-Marzooqi:

“We are still disappointed here. I should be happy for them, but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sport in Saudi Arabia.”

But presentation is paramount for Saudi observer Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

“This flies against the traditions of having a woman not make a public display of herself or mixing with men. Now, the world could see women marching with men in the opening ceremony and – even more – women running in competition.”

Indeed, the United Nation’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, Wilfried Lemke, declares that the Saudi “decision marks a significant progress in realizing the right of all to take part in physical and sporting activities, and hence achieving greater gender equality in sport.”

Gender equality is, of course, a highly Western concept, untroubled by the real difficulties that remain inside Saudi Arabia, where extreme cultural resistance to women in public life could turn into even stronger revulsion with the presence their women competing in London.

For the UN, IOC and others demanding the Saudis break the gender line (it wasn’t really a “decision” at all), this is merely one more box to check on their checklist of symbolic acts regarding “equality.” It’s also meant to quell critics, primarily from the United States and other countries with advanced status for women, and who have been making the most noise about the Saudi absence.

Qatari women in the Olympics. Check.

Brunei women in the Olympics. Check.

Saudi women in the Olympics. Check.

The only three nations sending Olympians to London that have never included women before. Check.

Gender equality in sports and in life is indeed a wonderful thing. It’s not hard to understand why pressure would be exerted on a country that doesn’t allow women to vote, drive or be seen in public unaccompanied by a male, much less one that disapproves of female athletic activity. But the pressure groups clearly didn’t regard the realities for the women they claim to be helping and who fear a post-Olympic backlash.

Says Rawh Abdullah, a captain of a female soccer team in the Saudi capital, Riyadh:

“We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard. We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience.”

She’s stressing the importance of developing sports for women inside the kingdom from the ground up, on an organic basis, as slow and grinding as that may be. Failing to listen to the voices of those inside Saudi Arabia with the most to lose from this act of symbolism figures to make the work of changing laws and society from within even more onerous.

As al-Marzooqi says:

“It’s a conflicting situation. It may be good for the future, but it’s definitely not good for the present situation. There will be side effects.”

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One Comment

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