The Olympics is a symbolic victory for Saudi Arabian women, but let’s not get carried away

Uncomfortable questions must continue to be asked about the treatment of women’s sport.

Simply by entering the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony, two Saudi Arabian women made history. The inclusion of Saudi Arabia alongside female athletes from Brunei and Qatar means that, for the first time since the modern Olympics began, every country will be represented by at least one woman.

For this and many other reasons, the 2012 Olympic Games has all of the ingredients to be the best for women, ever. There are more events for women, more medals on offer and the best female representation of women we have ever seen.

The Olympics will shine a spotlight on female athleticism this summer – celebrating women’s achievements and inspiring women to get more active. Our Go Girl campaign demands that this continue long after the games so that women’s sport is finally given the recognition it deserves.

Yet, in some areas of the world the barriers to participation are insurmountably high. Women have been able to participate in the Olympics since 1900, but it is only now that women from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been given this opportunity. In Saudi Arabia there is almost no tradition of female participation in sport and it was unclear until a few weeks ago whether Saudi women would be prevented from competing at all.

The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to uphold the Olympic charter, which states that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” We told the Saudis that sending a woman to compete as a neutral would be nothing more than a token gesture, completely at odds with the Olympic spirit. We celebrated when the decision to send female athletes was reached but recognised that it was a small step in a much longer journey.

Symbolic, yes. Revolutionary? Perhaps not.

The restrictions on Saudi women participating in sport in their country meant that it would have been impossible to find a suitably qualified athlete on home soil. Sarah Attar, who will be representing the county in the 800m, lives and trains in southern California. She has spent very little time in Saudi Arabia, where she would be unable to compete in public.

By contrast judo competitor Wodjan Shaherkani, has never stepped foot outside of the country. She is coached by her father in private and, with just a blue belt to her name, is woefully, and perhaps dangerously, under-qualified to compete at an international level. They are at the games thanks to the IOC's Principle of Universality, which says that a small number of non-qualified competitors can be sent to compete in the Olympics.

Squaring the appearance of Attar and Shaherkani with the deep societal barriers faced by women in Saudi Arabia is a troubling conundrum. It is a huge leap forward that the girls have been accepted as members of a team of elite athletes. But significant barriers remain.

The athletes are competing under strict sharia conditions. Both are commanded to wear “suitable clothing during competition” and will reportedly be accompanied by a “guardian” to accompany them at all at times. There were doubts over whether Shaherkani would be able to compete at all after a disagreement between the International Judo Federation and the Saudi’s over whether the wearing of a headscarf would be allowed.

Both athletes have been subjected to disturbing online abuse after daring to participate in the opening ceremony. The hashtag “Prostitutes of the Olympics” was circulating on the social networking site Twitter late last week in reference to the two women. With Shaherkani competing on Friday it remains to be seen how much worse the abuse will get. 

The inclusion of Attar and Shaherkani at the very least shines a spotlight on the sort of discrimination faced by women in Saudi Arabia. It sets a precedent of women’s participation, which will be difficult for the Saudi’s to reverse. But, we must not allow the international community to consider their inclusion in the games mission accomplished.

Uncomfortable questions must continue to be asked about the treatment of women’s sport - both at home and abroad.

As cyclist Lizzie Armitstead pointed out after her silver medal victory on Sunday, sexism remains an issue even in the western world, where women’s sport is underfunded and overlooked by the media. Online abuse is not reserved for Saudi competitors. Team GB weightlifter Zoe Smith has complained about internet trolls who have criticised her for participating in a "male" sport. While none of this compares with an outright ban on public participation, failing to make the case for equal treatment of female athletes at home certainly doesn’t help the international community’s case when pushing for better treatment of women’s sport abroad.

Our research shows that female role models are essential for inspiring women to become more active. Participating in sport makes girls more likely to achieve educational and career goals, avoid teenage pregnancy and develop greater body confidence. Making sport more accessible to women therefore goes hand in hand with the achievement of a more equal, democratic and progressive society.

Attar and Shaherkani should feel very proud to take their place in history.

But, London 2012 can only be considered a true success if it marks the beginning of a shift in attitudes towards women’s sport the world over.

This must be the true legacy of the Olympic Games.

Sue Tibballs is the chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Federation

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia carries her country's flag during the Opening Ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.