London 2012 marks the first time Saudi Arabian women are able to compete in the Olympics. Finally! 16-year-old Wojdan Shaherkani and 19-year-old Sarah Attar were chosen to be part of this historic first for their country and competed in judo and the 800 meter run, respectively. Although neither took home a medal, both young women have been the focus of plenty of international attention. Some view the mandatory inclusion of female athletes from all countries as major progress, while others are…well, let’s say less supportive. Both Shaherkani and Attar have been referred to as prostitutes on Twitter, as well as generally denounced by conservative Saudi Muslims –unfortunate, but not exactly surprising.
You would think, however, that feminists and others fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia would be thrilled. Although some are, a recent New York Times article highlights a contingent of Saudi women who remain less than impressed. Aziza al-Yousef, a professor and proponent of women’s driving rights, is proud of Shaherkani and Attar, but doesn’t quite buy the whole Saudi-officials-advancing-women’s-rights-overnight story. She told the New York Times:
“This is not a step forward for women’s rights,” [she] said in her house in Riyadh. “We’ve been asking for girls to play sports in school for years; here they give Saudi women a spot in the Olympics, but not the right to earn a place on the team. This doesn’t add anything and it won’t change anything.”
She may be on to something. Of the 19 members of the Saudi Arabian Olympic team, two are female — not exactly equal representation. Shaherkani, although she did manage to pin her opponent at one point, doesn’t even have a black belt in Judo, but somehow made it to the Olympic games. Furthermore, she and Attar were only included after the International Olympic Committee threatened to ban all countries that refused to allow women to compete in the London 2012 games. Yousef’s fellow women’s rights activist, Rasha al-Duwaisi, spells it out for us:
“The government didn’t choose to [include women],” she said. “It was forced to, in order to give men what they want.”
Instead of taking real steps to secure women’s rights, like enacting legislation regarding driving, education, or domestic abuse, Saudi officials throw a few token women on the Olympic team to appease the IOC. They thus earn brownie points on the world stage for seemingly changing their stance on female athletes and simultaneously ensure that their male athletes can compete in London. Hooray! Everyone’s happy!
Not quite. As I’m sure Yousef and Duwaisi would agree, there’s still way too much change needed in Saudi Arabia for women to rejoice yet. Yousef again:
I wish the auto industry would unite…and decree that no cars will be exported to Saudi Arabia until women can drive them, too.
Now we’re talking. Hey, if it worked for the Olympics…who knows?
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Martin Hesketh via Flickr