Saudis Refuse to Send Women to Olympics Despite IOC's Ban on Discrimination

By Patrick Goodenough | February 21, 2012 | 4:37 AM EST

Saudi Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz is head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee (Photo: IOC)

( – Qatar’s announcement that it will include women in its Olympic team for the first time leaves just Saudi Arabia and Brunei as the remaining holdouts among the 204 national teams, but the International Olympic Committee is not making the issue a condition of participation in the London games this summer.

Qatar’s Olympic committee said Monday it would include a female swimmer and female sprinter in its team for London. The small Gulf state, which is making a bid to host the 2020 games, has sent 98 athletes to the Olympics since 1984, not one of them women.

The proportion of women participating in the Olympics has been climbing steadily over the last century. A hundred years ago, women accounted for just 2.2 percent of all athletes at the 1912 games in Stockholm. In Beijing four years ago, the number had reached a record 42.4 percent.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) charter prohibits “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise” and the organization has been stressing the issue of women’s participation especially in recent years.

The countries that proved most reluctant were largely Islamic states with poor records on women’s rights overall. Countries with the worst gender ratios measured across their historical Olympic participation include Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Oman, Iraq and Iran.

Slowly, however, the number of those resisting altogether has been dropping.

Afghanistan sent women (two) to the Olympics for the first time ever in 2004 – three years after the fall of the Taliban – despite having participated in 11 previous summer games dating back to 1936.

Also in 2004, Kuwait included its first-ever female athlete to the games, and the most recent summer games, in Beijing in 2008, saw Oman and the United Arab Emirates send women for the first time.

Qatar’s decision leaves only two countries not yet willing to comply with the IOC’s wishes.

Of the two, Saudi Arabia draws the most attention. The oil-rich Gulf kingdom of 25.6 million people has taken part in nine Olympic Games since 1972, and has sent a total of 131 male athletes. (Brunei, a Southeast Asian Muslim sultanate slightly smaller than Delaware, with a population of 408,000, has sent just three athletes, all men, to three games. Queries sent to the Brunei Olympic body brought no response by press time.)

The head of the Saudi “national Olympic committee” (NOC) is a member of the ruling royal family. Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz has also been on the 106-member IOC since 2002.

The IOC has chosen not to deny participation to NOCs that have never included women in their national teams.

(By contrast, the IOC barred white minority-ruled South Africa from participation from the 1960s until the Barcelona games in 1992 – not because South Africa refused to include black athletes in national Olympics delegations but because of racial segregation in sports events at home.)

Last July an IOC spokeswoman told the organization “does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”

Even months later, with the Saudis and Bruneians still holding out, IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau responded to queries Monday with a brief statement: “The IOC continues to hold discussions with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee both on the potential participation of women in London and on how to increase access for women to sport in general within the country.”

‘Clear violation of charter’

At a World Conference on Women and Sport, held in Los Angeles last week, more than 800 delegates from 135 countries in a declaration included a call for the IOC to ensure “that every participating NOC includes women in its competing team.”

Some advocacy groups have been calling for a stronger action for many years.

As long ago as 2000, the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation in a position paper called for the “suspension from the Olympic family of those countries which preclude women from participating in the Olympic Games on the basis of race, religion, politics or gender.”

The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs (IGA) campaigns for countries that bar women athletes to be banned from the Olympics and other international sporting events.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch recommends that “the IOC condition Saudi Arabia’s participation on the country taking immediate and effective steps to end discrimination in sports against women, in clear violation of the Olympic Charter.”

“Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records of respecting and protecting the rights of women,” said Christoph Wilcke, a Middle East researcher at HRW. “As the Olympics approach, it is time for Saudi Arabia to end this abusive system that denies women and girls the right to participate in sports and public life.”

Critics of the Saudi regime say the treatment of women in sport is reflection of the discrimination they face in other areas.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Women are not permitted to vote, drive, or appear in public not dressed in a full-body covering, and require the permission of a male relative to travel, get a job or open a bank account.

As in several other countries where shari’a prevails, a female rape victim in Saudi Arabia is obliged to present four uninvolved male Muslim witnesses of good standing to corroborate her version of events, a standard virtually impossible to meet. If she does not do so, she can face charges of adultery.

In what was viewed as a major concession, King Abdullah announced last fall that women would be allowed to vote and compete in municipal elections, although only with effect from 2015.

Saudi Arabia was elected in November 2010 onto the 41-member board of the new United Nations agency promoting the equality of women, the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (also known as U.N. Women).

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow