By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Arabia in a bid to avoid being barred from the 2012 London Olympics has agreed to send a token female equestrian to the tournament to represent the conservative kingdom that effectively discourages women's sports.
The decision followed a warning last year by Anita DeFrantz, the chair of the International Olympic Committee's Women and Sports Commission, that Saudi Arabia alongside Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female athlete to the London Olympics.
An earlier agreement by Qatar, the only other country whose indigenous population are largely Wahhabis, adherents of a puritan interpretation of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia, to field a women's team in London increased the pressure on the kingdom to follow suit.
The decision however is likely to prove less controversial in Qatar than Saudi Arabia. Qatar has far fewer of Saudi Arabia's sharper edges such as a ban on women's driving, strict gender segregation and a culture that enshrines male dominance.
Saudi Arabia's most likely female athlete is 18-year old equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At the time, Ms. Malhas was not officially delegated to compete in Singapore on behalf of the kingdom.
“I didn’t know whether I was allowed but when I got invited of course I didn’t think twice and went at my own expense, I didn’t care much about me being there as a representative of Saudi Arabia, because anyone could probably do that. But getting a medal was the key, and that’s not easy for anyone, and I wanted that — and only that gives recognition to my country,” she told the Arab News.
Despite official discouragement women have increasingly been pushing the envelope at times with the support of more liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family, The kingdom's toothless Shura or Advisory Council has issued regulations for women's sports clubs, but conservative religious forces often have the final say.
Nonetheless the mandate granted to a Spanish consultancy earlier this year to develop the kingdom's first national sports plan is exclusively for men's sports.
The pushing of the envelope comes as women are proving to be the most visible in challenging the kingdom's gender apartheid against the backdrop of simmering discontent. Manal al-Sharif was detained in May for nine days after she videotaped herself flouting the rules by getting behind a steering wheel and driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising a that she would stop agitating for women's rights.
Discrepancy about women's sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools Women's games and marathons are often cancelled when more conservative members of the clergy gets wind of them.
The issue of women's sport has at time sparked sharp debate with clerics condemning it as corrupting and satanic and charging that it spreads decadence. Clerics warned that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married. In defiance, women have quietly been establishing soccer and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base.
Fielding a female equestrian at the London Olympics may take Saudi Arabia off the IOC's hook, but changes little on the ground in the kingdom itself. That remains an uphill battle particularly with an ageing and ailing top leadership that this year has significantly increased the religious establishment's funding as part of its bid to shield Saudi Arabia from the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the region.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.