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