Ban Urged on Saudi Arabia Over Discrimination

the new york times

In an extensive report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch, a New-York based advocacy group, called on the International Olympic Committee to take a harder line with Saudi Arabia’s national Olympic committee unless it enacted significant sports reforms.
The group said the Saudi delegation should be kept out of this summer’s London Olympics unless it included a female athlete.
Saudi Arabia is one of three established Olympic nations that have yet to send a female athlete to the Games. In its report, Human Rights Watch describes systematic discrimination against women in sports by restricting their access to physical education and sports clubs and by having an “effective ban” on women competing at a national level.
“The I.O.C. should really be mindful that Saudi Arabia is an outlier in the international sporting community, and that it’s a black eye to the sporting community to have such an outlier participate in the upcoming Olympics,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Wilcke, the report’s principal author, said the other two nations that had not fielded female athletes at the Olympics — Qatar and Brunei — were not as comprehensive in their discrimination against would-be female athletes. Unlike Saudi Arabia, he said, Qatar and Brunei had sent female athletes to regional and international senior competitions like the Islamic Women’s Games and the Asian Games.
Qatar, which is bidding to host the 2020 Olympics, has committed to sending female athletes to the London Olympics after having more than 50 women on its team for the 2010 Asian Games. Brunei, an Asian nation with a population of about 400,000, has struggled to field an Olympic team at all. It failed to register any athletes for the 2008 Games in Beijing and was excluded from the opening ceremony by the I.O.C.
Officials from Saudi Arabia, a monarchy whose legal system is based on Islamic law, have not ruled out sending women to the Olympics.
Wilcke said the I.O.C. was violating the Olympic Charter by not penalizing Saudi Arabia for discriminating against athletes based on sex. But Emmanuelle Moreau, an I.O.C. spokeswoman, reiterated Wednesday that the committee would not mandate that the Saudis have female representation in London.
“The I.O.C. does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue,” Moreau wrote in an e-mail.
She said that the I.O.C. had been in regular contact with the national Olympic committees of Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, noting that each country had included women in their delegations for the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.
At those Games in 2010, the equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas became the first Saudi woman to participate in an international sporting competition, winning a bronze medal in show jumping.
“We are very pleased with this evolution, which can only be seen as a promising development leading towards London 2012,” Moreau wrote.
It remains unlikely that Malhas will be included on the Olympic team, though. Saudi Arabia qualified for the Olympic team show jumping event in December without Malhas. The Saudis have a strong core group of six male riders who are training for the Games, largely in Europe. Only four riders will be chosen to represent Saudi Arabia in team jumping at the Games.
Calls and messages to Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee and its equestrian federation were not immediately returned Wednesday.
To encourage broader participation, Olympic organizers can award so-called universality slots in track and field and swimming to athletes from nations that are under-represented at the Games. Those slots are awarded irrespective of qualifying standards, which Wilcke said could provide another avenue for a Saudi woman to participate in London.
“Swimming and the dress you wear is not going to go down well with the Saudi public, so we think track and field is the more appropriate option, also because you can enter an athlete pretty much up to the last minute,” he said.
He said the objective of his group’s report was not simply to promote change at the Olympics but to promote better conditions for all female athletes in Saudi Arabia. The report urges the I.O.C. to pressure the Saudi Olympic Committee to form a women’s section, to provide financing for women’s sports and to start a campaign to encourage Saudi women to compete in sports. The report also calls for a timeline and strategy for establishing physical education programs for girls in public schools. Last September, King Abdullah granted Saudi women the right to vote in the next election cycle in 2015 and to run as candidates in future municipal elections. But, among the other limitations on them, Saudi women do not yet have the right to drive, and they require the permission of a male sponsor to travel.
“Sports is a small part of this, and I would agree that it’s probably not the part that, when you ask a Saudi woman, that she would point her finger to,” Wilcke said. “But I think it is a wedge issue. It can open the cracks in what is pretty pervasive discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia.”