Today we bring you yet another story of Islamic countries giving their female athletes the shaft. It turns out that Saudi Arabia, a country that has never sent a woman to the Olympics, ain’t about to start:
According to Thursday’s editions of Al-Watan newspaper, an all-but-official government organ, Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf Bin-Faisal (a member of the Saudi royal family and the country’s sports minister), told a Wednesday press conference, that he “does not endorse female participation of Saudi Arabia at the present time in the Olympics and international tournaments.”
The prince also was quoted as saying, cryptically, “Female Saudi participation will be according to the wishes of students and others living abroad. All we are doing is to ensure that participation is in the proper framework and in conformity with sharia (Islamic law).”
As Philip Hersh explains in the article, this essentially means that women’s participation will be limited to unofficial delegates, neither endorsed by their home country nor subject to its rules, but invited independently by the IOC. This goes against the official Olympic Charter, which states that
“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Not only that, but it creates a second class of female Saudi athletes, tacitly endorsing the country’s subjugation of women. Commenter I, Claudia made an excellent point to this effect on a recent post about FIFA’s hijab ban:
In doing this, and in playing along with the little theater where we all pretend that this is not a special accomodation based on pity, we perpetuate the situation where women are denied a full freedom of choice. On the other hand, if we staunchly refuse, the end result will be that these women are forced to stay home and not play, which can hardly be spun as a blow in favor of their freedom.
In situations like these, the governing body of a league like FIFA or an event like the Olympics has to walk a fine line in trying to increase women’s participation. A zero-tolerance policy with regard to gender discrimination would definitely make a point, but at the cost of even the slight female presence that exists now. Making accommodations, much like FIFA did when it lifted its ban on headscarves, lends legitimacy to the entire misogynistic cultural construct, and may postpone ultimate goals for the sake of short-term gain.
Hersh calls for Saudi Arabia and the two other countries that don’t allow female athletes, Brunei and Qatar, to be banned from participating in the Olympics until they change their tunes. I’m not sure I can agree -– in fact, this is one instance in which I really don’t know what the best course of action would be. Should these countries be barred from sending any athletes, so that the Olympics can send a strong and consistent message about equality and human rights? Or are inroads of any kind, even less-than-ideal ones, valuable for their ability to chip away at an entrenched worldview?
What do you think?