(CNSNews.com) – When the delegation of Tuvalu enters the Olympic stadium in Beijing on Friday evening for what will be its debut Games, the tiny Pacific island nation of just 11,000 people will be represented by two athletes and a weightlifter – two men and one woman.
The other debut nation at the 2008 Games, the Marshall Islands (pop: 63,000), has produced a team of three men and two women (athletics, swimming and Taekwondo).
But elsewhere in the procession of participating nations, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, will field a team – athletes, equestrians, swimmers, shooters and weightlifters – that doesn’t include a single woman.
In the eight summer Olympic Games in which the kingdom has participated since 1972, it has sent a total of 166 men, and no women.
Several smaller Islamic nations have a similar record, but Saudi Arabia, as the biggest of those resisting change and a country that claims special status as the birthplace of Islam, draws the most attention.
Saudi Arabia also has a representative – a member of the royal family – on the 110-member International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body whose charter forbids “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise.”
The situation must change, says a growing number of critics.
When the U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess in September, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) will push a resolution calling on the IOC to strive to make the next summer Games, in London in 2012, the first in which every country’s team includes women.
“Congresswomen DeLauro is a very big advocate of encouraging women in sports at all levels,” spokeswoman Adriana Surfas said Thursday. “When young women get involved in sports it has a profound effect – in their studies, their interaction with friends and others, and in their future success and careers.”
Asked about countries which for cultural or religious reasons put hurdles in the path of women in sports, Surfas said “other countries have overcome the challenges. If applied sensitively, we know it can be done.”
Some want the IOC to go further than merely encouraging change.
In 2000, the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation in a position paper called for the “suspension from the Olympic family of those countries which preclude women from participating in the Olympic Games on the basis of race, religion, politics or gender.”
Although the number of countries not allowing women has been dropping, the problem persists. In Athens in 2004, the number of countries to send no women dropped to seven, but many more fielded just one or two women, among them Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), says that any country which prevents women from participating should be barred from the Games.
He notes that the IOC banned South Africa in the 1960s over apartheid policies in sports (the country only returned to the event in Barcelona 1992).
What is happening in Saudi Arabia in the area of sports is arguably worse, al-Ahmed said Thursday. South Africa at the time of the IOC ban was willing to send black athletes to the Games (its 62-strong team for Tokyo 1964 would have included seven blacks). The problem was its refusal to allow interracial sporting competition at home.In Saudi Arabia’s case, women face discrimination both domestically and in the international sporting arena.
“[Saudi] women are not allowed to run, to play soccer, to do anything,” he said. “It’s worse [than South Africa’s sports policies under apartheid], in that sense. The IOC should take a stronger stance against a country like Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Ahmed said women in Saudi Arabia and other countries should be able to take part not just in individual events, but also in team sports, and be involved in sports administration as well. Sports facilities for women was another area that needed to be addressed.
‘An indicator of other rights’
Al-Ahmed said the issue went way beyond participation in sports, and had to do with the broader way women are treated in a society.
He cited Nawal El Moutawakel, a Moroccan athlete, as saying that women’s sports in a country is reflective of the status of women in that country (Hurdler El Moutawakel in 1984 became the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic medal.)
“It’s not the sole indicator but it is one of the indicators,” Al-Ahmed said. “If the women in these countries cannot practice sports it means they most likely do not have other rights too.”
Saudi Arabia’s rulers follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Women are not allowed to drive, travel without the written permission of a male relative, or appear in public not dressed in a full-body covering.
According to an IGA policy paper released last June, Saudi clerics have released fatwas effectively banning women from sports by banning sports centers for women.
Attempts by Islamic scholars to invoke religion as a reason for not allowing women to participate in sports are complicated by the fact that most Muslim countries do – albeit often with restrictions including strict dress code and limitations on what events are open to women.
In rare cases, some Islamic countries even have a better gender record than many Western nations. Indonesia has sent 161 men and 68 women to 12 summer Games, and in Athens in 2004, 16 of its 38 representatives were women.
But countries where Islam is more strictly enforced tend to be closer to the Saudi model. An examination of gender ratio statistics for all past Olympics shows that Afghanistan has sent a total of 93 men, and only two women (Iran 385-11; Sudan 64-2; Kuwait 182-1; Pakistan 321-4; Yemen 16-1; Oman 33-0; Qatar 82-0 and UAE 37-0).
Muslims who take a more relaxed view of Muslim taking part in sports sometimes point to the example of Mohammed.
One of the hadiths, or traditional writings and saying about the prophet, says that he ran a race with one of his wives, Aisha. Aisha, who was much younger than Mohammed, won the race, but some years later, after she gained some weight, they had a rematch and he won, according to the hadith, narrated by Abu Dawood.
But modesty and mixing of sexes remain issues in many Islamic countries. Iran has hosted four Women’s Islamic Games over the past decade and a half, with strict dress codes enforces and restrictions on male spectators. The event is organized by a women’s sports federation headed by Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
‘Saudis need to be pressurized’
Al-Ahmed said he does not buy the argument that Saudi King Abdullah is a reformer.
“He has been in control for three years. We haven’t seen a change regarding women – no affirmative and aggressive government policy to improve the status of women or to introduce any reform to society or the government.”
Al-Ahmed said he expected the Saudis to drag out the matter of women’s participation at the Olympics for as long as possible.
“The Saudi government has a policy that they will not give anything unless they are forced to,” he said. “If you try to force them to give you ten they will give you one.”
For this reason, it was critical that the IOC keep up the pressure, he said.
The IOC’s own record on women has come in for criticism over the years. The body was formed in 1894, but it was not until 1981 that the first women were elected onto the body.
Twenty-seven years later, only 15 of the IOC’s 110 members are women. One of four vice-presidents, Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden, is a woman.
By 2000, when 400 delegates from 192 national Olympic committees gathered in Rio for an annual congress, only eight were women.
Many national Olympic committees also do not include women. At an international conference on women in sports held in Jordan last March, delegates called for the IOC to set a mandatory, enforceable requirement for all national committees to have women on their executive committees.