Saudi Arabia has refused to include female athletes in her Olympic team for the upcoming 17th Asian Games that will take place from September 19 to October 4, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea. According to the source, women were seen as “not sufficiently competitive”.

Criticized by Human Rights Watch, the conservative kingdom, through its spokesman, Mohammad El-Mishal, the secretary general of KSA’s Olympic Committee, promised to send female athletes to the next Olympics. Not this year:
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”, as reported by Reuters. “We are obliged for Saudi ladies to participate and we will do our duty in a manner that doesn't contradict with the major rules of the kingdom”:

-          Women will only compete in equestrian, fencing, shooting and archery - sports that are “accepted culturally and religiously” in Saudi Arabia;
-          They shall respect the clothes regulations and wear “suitable” uniforms that won’t reveal their bodies and heads;

-          Athletes will be “accompanied by their husbands or parents or brothers and this is the way we do it when women travel”;
-          If chosen to compete, women must win: It seems that the General President of Youth Welfare doesn’t like “seeing female Saudi athletes being always the last (place)”.
Note that KSA refused to send a female athlete to China, this year, despite the fact that, 4 years ago, the ultra-conservative country sent the first Saudi woman, Dalma Rusdhi Mallas, to compete and win the equestrian bronze medal.

Picture: Sarah Attar receiving the crowd’s cheer at the London Olympics in 2012 (AFP/Getty)

The schizophrenic situation of female athletes demonstrates how the tentative to reform the rules are always colliding with ultra-conservative wills to keep women in their current status quo. If some reforms were slowly done in the past few years (lifting the ban on sports at girls’ schools, allowing few women to participate at the London Olympics), it looks like great patience and action are need to obtain absolute freedom. There is even a tougher journey towards freeing Saudi’s way of thinking: for a large part of the population, it is still unacceptable for women to take part in sports competitions. Wojdan Shaherkani (Judo) and Sarah Attar (athletics), who participated in the 2012 London Olympics, were highly-criticized. A hash tag describing them as “prostitutes of the Olympics” (#عاهرات_الاولمبياد) circulated online. Saudi-American Sarah Attar faced more criticism as photos of her practicing in shorts without headscarf were displayed online. Nevertheless, the warm cheer of the crowd at the Olympics stadium was seen by Attar and her peers as a true encouragement for every Saudi women fighting for freedom. 

Pascale Asmar