Last week I asked Urchin readers to challenge me. Give me a topic, any topic, and I’ll write about it. This week, Denise challenged me to write about Saudi women at the Olympics. I will readily admit that I am no expert on Saudi Arabia’s history, government, or Islam, for that matter. However! This has been a wonderful experience to research, learn, and explore a region of the world and an issue that I did not know much about. Thank you, Denise!
If you have an idea for something I should write about, UMail me!
By Margaret Hedderman
When Sarah Attar finished the Women’s 800 metres at the 2012 Olympics, the crowd stood and cheered – not because she had won, but because she was one of two women to represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time in history. Attar, however, was not born and raised in Saudi Arabia – rather, she was born in Escondido, CA, ran cross-country in high school, and currently attends Pepperdine University. This isn’t meant to discount her efforts, but we should keep in mind that while Attar has experienced all the benefits of Title IX, the women’s liberation movement, and society’s respect for her gender, the women she represented at the Olympics have none of the above.
It is illegal for women to participate in organized sports in Saudi Arabia (or even attend sporting events for that matter), drive a car, or go anywhere without a male guardian. Women do not currently have the right to vote or be elected into office, and only 21% of Saudi women hold a job. So, is Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the 16-year old Saudi Arabian judo contestant, participation in the Olympics an act of hypocrisy or a symbolic success?
According to the Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia’s government restrictions:
Put athletics beyond the reach of almost all women. There is no government sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men. The ban on women’s private, for-fee sports clubs has forced women to restrict themselves to fitness gyms that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports. Membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls. Official sporting bodies hold no competitive sports for Saudi women athletes in the kingdom and do not support Saudi sportswomen in regional or international competitions.
Saudi Arabia is governed under sharia law, the moral and religious code of Islam. Many, with much more expert opinions and a great understanding of Islam than I, will attest that Saudi Arabia’s oppression of women is cultural rather than religious. King Abdullah is widely considered to be progressive, comparatively speaking. He has said women will have the right to vote by 2015 and as of this year, men have been banned from selling women’s lingerie – allowing for women to take on more jobs. In 2005, King Abdullah created a scholarship for men and women to study at international universities. Still, Saudi Arabia is number 130 out of 134 countries for gender parity.
The Guardian reported in July that the International Olympic Committee would not allow Saudi men to compete in the 2012 Olympics unless the Kingdom sent a women’s team. Waiting until the last minute, Saudi Arabia announced Attar and Shahrkhani would join the Olympic team.
Both Attar and Shahrkhani are anomalies. How is a young woman, raised in America, at all representative of Saudi women? Though Shahrkhani was born in Mecca, she is one of the lucky few allowed to participate in sports at all. Again, this isn’t meant to belittle either athlete’s efforts. In fact, both women have received more than their fair share of “scrutiny” online – being widely called prostitutes for their athleticism the least of it.
Despite my cynicism toward Saudi Arabia’s reasons for including Attar and Shahrkhani, I would like to think that this is truly a symbolic victory for Saudi women. Perhaps Attar and Shahrkhani have taken the first steps in showing other Saudi women that it is possible.
After losing her first match, Shahrkhani said, ““I’m excited and proud to be representing my country. Unfortunately I lost, but I’ll do better next time.”