Saudi Women in the Olympics: Breakthrough or Tokenism?

Date: August 2012

Saudi Arabia has a first as it enters the 2012 Olympics in London – with women athletes — even though it is the last Muslim country to do so. The first two Saudi women Olympians are Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar in judo and track and field respectively.

External Image vs. Internal Reality for Saudi Women
Saudi women in the London Olympics – is a giant step forward but complex and punctuated by a dual message. It signals Saudi Arabia’s openness to becoming a global player on many more playing fields. Yet, this signal butts up against the reality that Saudi schoolgirls lack access to sports and physical activities, a huge deprivation in a population afflicted with extraordinary levels of obesity and where 45% of middle aged women are obese.
I met Lina al-Maeena, a confident young Saudi woman, mother and founder of a woman’s basketball team a couple of years ago in Jeddah. In 2006, she started Jeddah United, the first local sports company in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia which promotes and trains women for sports events. Lina blew me away with her passion for basketball. She challenged my rigid stereotype of Saudi women. An optimist, she believes that the Saudi women’s Olympic debut, even as a symbol, could lead to progress. She predicts that Saudi women will be allowed to train for the next Olympics. “These moments break down stereotypes” says Lina “I can see the other side of the argument, but I choose to focus on the positive.”
Lina is flanked by conservative and progressive Saudi voices. On the conservative side, a Twitter hash tag describes the two Saudi women athletes as “Prostitutes of the Olympics.”
On the progressive side, Samar Fatany, Lina’s mother, is Senior broadcaster, Radio Jeddah and producer of ” Generation next,” a talk show on youth issues. Fatany comments on the Olympics: “The moderate and progressive members of society are delighted ….The move will pave the way for more professional athletes to participate in the future. It will offer hope for other sports lovers to qualify… It is definitely a positive beginning and a step in the right direction. Lina is already planning to qualify the Jeddah United basketball team for the next Olympics.”
Similarly, “every step forward counts,” says Jeddah’s Maha Akheel, a Saudi journalist and writer, and the author of the book Saudi Women in the Media “The views were split between those who supported and those who opposed but I think the majority thought it was a positive thing. Most people cheered on the athletes and supported them regardless of the outcome.” She concludes: “Personally I think it was wonderful that they participated even if the Saudi Olympic team had to have their arm twisted to allow them in the team.”
“Not so fast”, argues Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based online sports site Marzooqi believes that the Olympic participation does not change the realities for Saudi girls and women at home.“Still” he concedes, ‘the opening is not without significance” Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Host/producer of Huff Post Live, strikes a caustic cord: “By sending these two women to London under the guise of progress, Saudi Arabia will indeed be taking a trophy home for once again proving that among its Arab neighbors, when it comes to blatant backwardness, hypocrisy and systemic gender discrimination, ittakes home the gold, and then some.”
Shihab- Eldin continues: “It is one thing to segment your society and prevent gender-mixing, but to prevent women from exercising and participating in team sports in 2012 and to justify it with the importance of adhering to Sharia law, obtaining a male family member’s approval and dressing modestly is insulting to women, Islam and Olympics.”
Who holds the power: Clergy & Royalty vs. Youth & Women?
These contradictions reflect the underlying power realities. The Saudi clergy and the royalty wield a strong hold over social and cultural norms for women. But there is a vital anti-dote comprised of two key cohorts: women and youth. The duel is escalating but who wins, who loses and when are the trends to track. Saudi analysts at think tanks maintain that there was some kind of a tacit nod from the clergy to the royalty even as King Abdullah’s daughter, Adelah, a progressive on women’s rights, has a hand on the steering wheel of long overdue change for women. The youth bulge looms– Saudi youth (those under the age of 25) make up 61% of the population The question is how long before this tech savvy generation revolts and seizes the reins of power? Young women – the most restricted and impacted target with regard to their rights to drive, to marry, to travel – are just rearing to go. Some experts maintain that change will come – but the general gestalt of public intellectuals and Saudis in the know, is that culture is s-l-o-w moving and change will take time in Saudi Arabia.
Stay tuned for the next blog on the untold story on: Is Islam compatible with physical fitness for women?
This blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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