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
Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.