7/03/2012

Saudi female athletes fear crackdown

We risk being shut down completely after olympics, soccer team caption says
  • AP
 
Riyadh: While Olympic leaders and human rights advocates are encouraged by signs that Saudi Arabia may bow to pressure and send female athletes to the Summer Games, women athletes in the conservative kingdom are worried about a backlash at home.
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee to end the tradition of sending men-only teams to the Olympics, Saudi Arabia has said it will allow women who qualify to compete at the London Games.
The announcement came as the leadership’s favoured candidate, equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was ruled out of the Olympics - sending officials on a hunt for other female athletes they could include on the Saudi team and avoid IOC sanctions a month before the start of the games.
Women who play soccer and basketball in underground leagues around Saudi Arabia support those efforts, yet they also fear the hardliners will punish them for being pressured by the West and will crack down on women’s clandestine activities after the Olympic flame goes out in London.
“We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard,” said Rawh Abdullah, a captain of a female soccer team in Riyadh. “We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience.”
Also, she added, she and her teammates simply “are not ready to compete on such level” because they cannot train properly.
Rawh has given up her career as a teacher to run the all-women soccer club Al Tahaddi, Arabic for challenge. Since 2006, when the club was established, 25 team members meet four times a week to play after turning one of the players’ gardens into a field.
The 28-year-old Rawh, who serves as a coach and the captain on the team, charges each member 1,300 riyals ($350) annual fee to play. The money she gets covers players outfits, balls, makeshift goals, some fitness equipment and partly also trips to the port city of Jeddah or Dammam to play exhibition games or matches in the clandestine women’s league.
Female athletes like RAwh fear that sending inadequately prepared athletes to the London Games could do more harm than good to their cause of making sports “part of our lifestyle” and achieve change for millions of women, who’s public lives are severely restricted in the kingdom.
“If they do well, it will be OK, but if they have weak performance, they will turn to us, and say, ‘See, you pushed, you went, and you lost. You shamed us,’” Abdullah said.
“When we are prepared in four years’ time, and they have to send us, we can say to them: ‘You want me to go and represent my country? Now train us. Give us facilities to use and coaches to work with, and we will make you proud,’” Rawh said in an interview.
Ahmad Salem Al Marzooqi, the editor-in-chief of Shesports.net, an online magazine that aims to cover men’s and women’s sports events in the kingdom, said women need to obtain basic rights that are equal to those of men in Saudi Arabia before they can compete for their country abroad.
“We are looking for ways to achieve rights for women inside Saudi Arabia,” Al Marzooqi said.
“It’s a conflicting situation,” he said on the Olympics campaign. “If they send some to participate, it may be good for the future, but it’s definitely not good for the present situation. There will be side effects.”
Female athletes in judo and in track and field are considered possibilities for the games, sports officials familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press speaking on condition of anonymity because talks on a special arrangement for the Saudis are ongoing.
IOC President Jacques Rogge has said he is “optimistic” that Saudi Arabia will send women athletes, even though talks with the kingdom are “not an easy situation.” Saudi officials, who have publicly adamantly opposed sending women to London had left open a possibility that women, studying abroad would be able to compete outside of the team as independent athletes.
However, that option was quashed after pressure from human rights groups and the IOC. It was also criticized by Saudi-based athletes like Abdullah.
“It’s a pity for us. We play sports in Saudi Arabia, but they get to compete abroad because our country does not want to give us a chance to prove ourselves,” Rawh said. “Do I have to leave my country to show what we can achieve?”
Most Saudis cannot afford to study abroad, she added. Besides, she is convinced she needs to stay if she wants to make a difference.
“If I don’t achieve our goal to play and compete at home for me and for my team, then I will for those who will play after us,” Rawh said.