Saudi Women’s Participation In Olympics Against Cultural Norms – OpEd


By Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan

Competition in sports usually applies a range of principles of most sciences, including biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, physiology, psychology, nutrition, biomechanics, biomedical engineering, coaching and other pertinent sciences.

As a result, most nations use the Olympics as an available venue to show the entire world populations via various media outlets their excellence in part or all areas of these human scientific endeavors.

In a month, the world will turn its attention to London Olympics to watch the most spectacular human sports performance, which exemplifies the best utilization of those scientific principles. For this reason, in addition to other political reasons, developed nations and non-developed nations alike prepare their athletes ahead of time to take part in this global event. However, conventionally, the Olympic is an exclusive league for developed nations, while the rest of nations strenuously working to be recognized as members of this league.

The aim of that preparation process of the athletes is to set new records, which can be achieved by developed nations, as they have the scientific expertise; the advanced research institutions and advanced training facilities. Thus, those nations can easily summon the minds of their scientists to develop new ways to improve the training and performance of their athletes. Those new ways involve everything related to an athlete to compete effectively in the Olympic.

Moreover, those factors are supported by sports culture that dates back to the early years of the past century. This encourages the populations of developed countries to engage in sports activities. As a matter of fact, most of the Olympic Games were invented by those countries, specifically Western countries. This sports culture was permeated among the populations by the establishment of sports facilities in formal schools, colleges and universities, community centers in neighborhoods and youth centers.

In these countries, parents encourage their children to engage in sports activities early on by selecting the type of sports that is compatible with their physical structures and personal dispositions. So, boys and girls are exposed to multitude of sports games.
In contrast, underdeveloped and developing countries, including Saudi Arabia, have not yet developed equal scientific expertise, research institutions, or advanced training facilities. And most importantly, it has not developed sports culture, because it has began transforming into a modern society only in 1973, with the phenomenal increase of oil prices.

The number one sports game in Saudi Arabia and other underdeveloped and developing countries is football/soccer. Saudi Arabia’s male team, in particular, qualified for the Olympic Games only once, but did not win any type of Olympic medallion. As a result, some critics suggested that Saudi Arabia ought to focus on individual sports games, such as archery, track, and similar events, to qualify for the Olympic and potentially might win a type of medallion. However, few developing countries have won a type of Olympic medallion other than the category of football, and most of the winning countries were from Latin America.

Most Saudi parents can be described as being over protective of their children — boys and girls alike. Consequently, some Saudis are reluctant to encourage their siblings to engage in sports activities, especially outside the house. Nonetheless, they may accept boys’ activities in football and rarely allow them to participate in other sports games. Some parents believe that sports hamper children’s education and they might learn bad habits by associating with ill-mannered children.

With respect to girls’ participation in sports, Saudi families equate a broken hymen with the loss of virginity, and a girl losing her virginity/hymen by any means other than legitimate marriage, such as participating in strenuous activity, damages her family’s honor. For this reason, parents become even more protective of their girls, as saving girls’ virginity is deeply entrenched in their culture, and this tradition should be respected.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has only embarked on building modern sports facilities in the country beginning in 1973, with the boom of oil prices, which generated tremendous wealth enough to start on a sweeping development programs in almost every area of human development. However, knowing the social fact that Saudi traditions and norms stands against physical education, the focus of the human development programs was not primarily on building female sports facilities, and remained as such.

Now, there are calls from various segments of the Saudi society to introduce physical education in girls’ schools to combat obesity that has become an epidemic among young girls. Subsequently, sports culture in Saudi Arabia is starting to evolve.

In the meantime, human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) call on the Saudi government to allow Saudi female athletes to participate in the Olympic Games. These organizations argue that keeping women from the Olympics violates their human rights to practice sports, according to the Olympic Charter. This is could be punishable by preventing the Saudi Olympic teams entirely from participating in this world-sports event.

On the other hand, the international press purports that Muslim clerics have spoken against Saudi girls’ participation in the Olympics because of the potential loss of their hymens and suggested that the Saudi government caved in to their view. But this is not only a Muslim theocratic view, it is also cultural view, and this culture can’t be changed over night.

There are reality checks that have to be considered with respect to Saudi girls’ participation in the Olympics. First, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Saudi government would not force its citizens, specifically, parents, to let their girls participate in the Olympics against their will. In fact, by doing so, it would be in clear violation of human rights, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articles 1, 2, and other articles. Also, complete disregard of culture and tradition is a violation of human rights.

Second, in the light of the fact that female physical education in Saudi Arabia is virtually non-existent; as a result, Saudi girls lack the professional training to qualify in the Olympic. Moreover, the only Saudi female Olympic participant, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who grew up in Italy and lives in France, and has received professional training in horse show-jumping, was not able to meet the minimum eligibility standard required for the Olympic Game, and was ultimately disqualified.

Nevertheless, the OIC will grant Saudi female athletes entry based on “special circumstances,” and by doing so, this is a clear discrimination against thousands of more qualified male and female athletes around the world whose their life-dream is to participate in the Olympic Games, in the light that only 10,500 athletes were qualified for this event.

This is a discriminatory treatment against thousands of athletes, and this is a violation of human rights, according to the Universal Declaration, article 7.

Third, all facts indicate that cultural and structural conditions are not conducive for Saudi female athletes either to present an impressive performance, or win an Olympic medallion. Despite these self-evident facts, using international office power, human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee are exerting pressure on the Saudi government to force unqualified Saudi female athletes to participate in the Olympic Games that they will never wine or perform according to prevalent Olympic standards.

Subsequently, these international organizations are intentionally and knowingly subjecting the entire Saudi populations, particularly these female athletes and their families, to a degrading treatment in front of billions of people around the globe. This is also a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 5. Thus, one can easily discern that Saudi women’s participation in the Olympic is against human rights.

— Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan is a Saudi academician based in Riyadh.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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