After coming under pressure for years over the fact a handful of Islamic countries were still refusing to send women to the world’s biggest sporting event, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on July 12 that the last three holdouts, led by Saudi Arabia, had relented.
Two women, judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, 16, and U.S.-born 800m runner Sarah Attar, 19, were duly included in the Saudi team for London 2012.
Two smaller countries that had not sent women before also agreed to do so this year: Qatar sent four female athletes and Brunei sent one.
Those decisions were widely welcomed as a necessary and long-overdue step, with the IOC noting the progress that had been made since the Atlanta Games in 1996, when 26 countries had yet to include women in their teams.
But for Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA) and its “No women no play” campaign, launched in 2009, the Saudi decision amounted to tokenism.
In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to take physical education at school, and sportswomen are restricted to a few women-only facilities and leagues to ensure they are not seen by men. Women may also not watch sport events at stadiums.
The IOC Charter states as one of its “fundamental principles” that “[t]he practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport without discrimination of any kind …”
Elsewhere, the charter says, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Wednesday’s event at the British parliament aims to highlight what al-Ahmed sees as the IOC’s contravention of its own charter by allowing Saudi Arabia to participate despite the denial of sporting opportunities to women at home.
Participants include at least one member of the House of Lords, and al-Ahmed says IOC and London 2012 organizers have been invited as well.
“IGA has been petitioning the IOC to expel Saudi Arabia from the IOC and to ban it from the Olympics for gender apartheid as South Africa was banned for racial apartheid,” al-Ahmed said in a statement.
“The Saudi monarchy must allow millions of women in the country to participate in all realms of sport and receive physical education before being allowed to compete at the Olympics.
“The IGA believes that this will be achieved by obtaining equal athletic rights including, but not limited to, the right to participate in physical education programs, the right to work out in fitness centers, to be involved in sports teams, as well as the right to represent their country in national and international sporting events,” he said.
The IOC barred white minority-ruled South Africa from the Olympic Games from the 1960s until the Barcelona Games in 1992 – not because Pretoria refused to include black athletes in national Olympics delegations but because of racial segregation in sports events at home.
At last Friday’s opening event in London, the Saudi team of white-clad men was followed – several paces back – by three women in full-body dark-colored abayas – Shahrkhani, Attar and a third unidentified delegation member.
Saudi sports minister Prince Nawaf bin Faisal told the kingdom’s Al-Jazirah newspaper last month that the Saudi women would have to wear shari’a-compliant attire and not mix with men during the games.
The decision to send Shahrkhani and Attar to London reportedly unleashed a storm of protest on social media websites in the kingdom, although Attar’s Facebook page is dominated by positive messages by well wishers from around the world.
In recent days the IOC, judo authorities and the Saudi Olympic wrestled over the Saudis’ insistence that Shahrkhani be allowed to fight with her head covered. In a compromise announced Tuesday, she has now been given permission to compete in a headscarf, although concerns about safety were still being aired.