For the first time ever, two female Saudi athletes will compete at the Olympic Games. Judo competitor Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar were both entered into competition by the Saudi delegation before the July 9 deadline, and have been invited to the Games by the IOC.
Until today's news broke, it appeared that Saudi Arabia had failed to find any female athletes who qualified. Three days ago, Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that no women would be competing for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics.
Attar, a 17-year-old runner, said "a big inspiration for competing in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going. It's such a huge honour and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport".
"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time", IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement. "The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today's news can be seen as encouraging evolution".
The IOC charter 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". But the IOC has not banned countries that send male-only teams from competing in the Games: at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia sent only male athletes.
Some rights groups responded positively to the news. "It's an important precedent that will create space for women to get rights and it will be hard for Saudi hard-liners to roll back", said Minky Worden of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The move by Saudi Arabia means that, for the first time, every single country participating in this year's Games is sending female athletes. By contrast, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 26 of the national teams in competition had no women.
June 26 - Will Saudi Arabia Send A Woman To The Olympics?
Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that they are lifting their ban on allowing women to compete in the Olympics. But as of now, no Saudi women are expected to compete.
The woman who was thought the most likely to represent Saudi Arabia is 20-year-old show jumper Dalma Malhas. The BBC announced on Sunday that she would be competing in the Games, but on Monday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that she does not qualify. She was ruled out by the World Equestrian Federation on the grounds that her horse was sidelined by injury for a month during the qualifying period.
Journalist Nabila Ramdani believes that the conflicting messages - she will compete, her horse is out of commission - are not an accident. Writing in the Guardian, Ramdani suggests a reason for Saudi Arabia's announcement: "The answer lies, as with so many developments in the Middle East and North Africa, in last year's Arab Spring. As dictatorial regimes toppled from Cairo to Tunis, the surviving ones have tried to present a slick PR sheen, hiding their oppression with a sense of glowing achievement".
The IOC also announced earlier this year that they were preparing to ban Saudi Arabia from London 2012 altogether unless they sent a woman to the Games. The Saudi government responded that they would "oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify" - and according to the Telegraph, the decision to allow women follows "pressure from the country's ruler, King Abdullah". But the realities of life for women in the country make it highly unlikely that any women other than Malhas could have made it to the Games.
According to Reuters, "physical education is banned in girls' state schools in the kingdom", and the ruling al-Saud royal family has spoken out against female participation in sports. And it's taken a toll on women's health: Forbes magazine undertook a study in 2007 that found more than 63 percent of Saudi women are plagued with obesity.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also cautions against applauding the Saudi announcement that they will allow women to compete at the Games, stating "the gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. Millions of girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools". Minky Warden, director of global initiatives at HRW, says "The fact that so few women are 'qualified' to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country's restrictions on women's rights".
There's still a chance that a Saudi woman will compete at the Olympic Games, although it's unclear how it might happen: the IOC said on Monday that talks are "ongoing" with the Saudis, and that "we are working to ensure the participation of Saudi women at the Games in London". Khalil al-Daikheel, the head of Saudi Arabia's Olympic mission told Reuters on Sunday, however, that he was "unaware of any developments allowing women to participate".
Related stories on Strombo.com: