Saudi Arabia: Hooray for Female Olympic Athletes?

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?

Related Stories:

Saudi Arabian Women Granted Voting Rights

Saudi Arabia to Let Women Compete at Olympics

Saudi Woman Faces Flogging for Driving

Photo Credit: Martin Hesketh via Flickr

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Natasha Salgado
Natasha Salgado2 years ago

Ridiculous. Women have every right to take part in the Olympics as men. These countries are such a disgrace.

Anne Mueller
Anne M.3 years ago

there's still so much that needs to be done...

nicola w.
Jane H.3 years ago

I was delighted to see those gutsy women compete - but i think they will be in for hell when they go home ....I'd like them to stay here and bring their enlightened families.
China's olympics was also supposed to make great strides for human rights - and it hasn't.

Don Schneider
Don Schneider3 years ago

Saudi's are Saudi's and passing judgement on their culture from the perspective of another's culture is ludicrous. I think I remember US colleges were FORCED to spend equally on women's athletics in order to continue to spend the exorbitant amounts annually for men's programs. I forget the title # of the regulations, but the difference in the US measure to attain some semblance of equality and the first tiny step shown by the Saudi's is not so far different except in scope. So let us be pleased with this first minuscule step toward opening up of athletic competition to Saudi women and help press for larger change for the future !

Celine P.
Celine P.3 years ago

Saudi are completely hypocritical, women can't even drive a car in their own country! These 2 women are just puppets for Saudi Arabia.

Faither Jo H.
Jo Ellen H.3 years ago


janice b.
jan b.3 years ago

Women in Saudi Arabia who dare to enjoy the same things as men are considered worse than the bottom of the shoe..... which is the worst insult one can give another in that part of the world. Interesting that men walk down the street holding hands in the middle east plus there is a report that up to 70% of files exchanged between Saudi teenagers' mobile phones contain pornography....

Patricia H.
Patricia H.3 years ago

thanks for sharing

Ajla C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Malim koracima...

Sam M.
Sam E M.3 years ago

I heard this was the first time there was not a single country without competing female athletes, so that's great.
I feel sad for the two Saudi girls who didn't have much chance without the necessary training, so I hope Saudi Arabia will put the next four years to good use and allow sports in girls' schools so they can send female athletes to Brazil with a chance of winning a medal.
The Western world would do well to remember that only a century ago things were not so great for women here either, so let's not be judgemental. Just because some countries are not as 'advanced' as we think we are does not mean that we should condemn them. Things are changing slowly but surely (except for the Taliban and other extremists) and we should be encouraging every small step, not finding fault.
In addition, are you unaware of the number of women in our Western countries that are regularly beaten (and many killed) by their husbands? Life is not all roses and candy in our own countries, far from it, and those who point the finger should look in the mirror instead.