Saudi Arabia took a small step toward equality Sunday, as it reversed course and announced that some of its female athletes will be allowed to compete at the Olympics for the first time.
The decision marks a reversal from April, when the Saudis had said women would not be allowed to compete.
While the announced policy fell well short of allowing Saudi women to compete on an equal footing with Saudi men, it represented a step forward for a society where women’s rights are severely curtailed.
Saudi women will be allowed to compete if they can be dressed “to preserve their dignity.” Women from other conservative Muslim nations have worn sports hijabs, which are designed to allow women to compete with their hair and skin covered.
At least one Saudi woman, equestrian competitor Dalma Rushdi Malhas, is considered at “Olympic standard” by the Saudi Olympic Committee.
Saudi Arabia is the last nation to announce it will allow women to compete at the Olympics. Brunei and Qatar have not sent women to compete previously, but both countries have said they will send women to compete at the 2012 games in London.
Saudi Arabia has been strongly criticized for its treatment of women. Women are required to have male guardians no matter their age, and are kept separate from men in day-to-day life. Women often must eat in sex-segregated areas in restaurants, are prohibited from driving and are only allowed to work with the permission of their guardians.
While women being allowed to participate at the Olympics is a definite step forward, Saudi society is far from accepting of female athletes. Women’s athletics are strongly discouraged in most of Saudi society, and few outlets for female athletes exist.
Photoillustration by Jeff Fecke