Saudi Arabian Women Athletes: Is Sport Competition a Right?

Posted on March 25, 2012


This year, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia may send female athletes to the Olympics.  The particulars – which athletes, which sport, the attire, qualifications – are under discussion between the IOC and Saudi representatives.  The New York Times hails this progress, declaring that sports are a human right too long denied to Saudi women.  But this apparent progress is full of unresolved issues.

First off, Human Rights Watch published a report in February, detailing government restrictions and discrimination that “put athletics beyond the reach of almost all women.”  The organization called upon the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the Games unless women were allowed to compete (along with a host of other measures to promote sports among Saudi women).  The IOC has not taken things quite so far, but dialogue is underway.

Secondly, the very fact that this pressure has been brought by outside forces has raised some resistance within Saudi Arabia, even among some women.  Many see female participation in sports as exhibitionist and immodest, not in keeping with Islam.  Even among those who support this initiative, there are questions about how to implement female participation within Islamic requirements for modesty.  Will the IOC prescribe the uniforms?  Which sports might be considered unsuitable for women?  What about chaperones?

Finally, there is the fact that most Saudi women athletes simply are not ready to compete, thanks to the near-total  lack of facilities, funding, curricula, or anything else to do with women’s sports in their home country.  Determining a way for some female athletes to compete, despite their lack of qualifications to enter the Olympics, is one of the topics under discussion at the IOC.

Is participation in sports a human right?  And is it right to use the IOC as a tool to put external pressure on a country to change its own culture?