Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Saudi women going to Games is a sham

By Jocelyne Cesari, Special to CNN
August 1, 2012 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Saudi athlete Wojdan Shaherkani, left, arrives in London with her father for the Olympics on July 25.
Saudi athlete Wojdan Shaherkani, left, arrives in London with her father for the Olympics on July 25.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jocelyne Cesari: It's not an advance that Saudi Arabia sent two women to the Olympics
  • The country sent them to avoid a ban on participating, she says, but situation is dire at home
  • Cesari: Saudi women and girls cannot play or watch sports, except girls in private schools
  • Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records on women's rights in the world, she writes

Editor's note: Jocelyne Cesari is the senior visiting professor of International Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University and director of the Islam in the West Program, Harvard University.

(CNN) -- For the first time, Saudi Arabia sent two women to the Olympics -- Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, who will compete in judo and track and field. But their participation is far from a groundbreaking step for Saudi women.

It was touch and go whether one of the Saudi women, Shaherkani, would even participate this year when the president of the International Federation of Judo said women wearing headscarves would not be allowed to compete for fear of choking and injury. The issue has been resolved and she will participate in a form of headgear that complies with Saudi's strict Islamic dress codes for women.

But if Shaherkani had withdrawn, it would not have been a setback for Saudi women because her inclusion was not a sign of advancement. The presence of Saudi women is the result of several months of pressure by the International Olympics Committee on Saudi Arabia to include women competitors or face being banned from participation.

The situation for female athletes in Saudi Arabia is bleak.

Saudi woman will compete with headscarf
The rise of the Arab female athlete

Saudi women in general are denied the right to practice sports. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents girls from taking part in sports in government schools. Physical education is allowed only in private schools. Women are not allowed to play in official sports clubs or even watch matches in stadiums. Girls' football, volleyball and basketball games in private schools and colleges are held secretly.

Because of this ban, finding women with Olympic level training was a kind of mission impossible. Only a few days before its July announcement that the two women would attend, the Saudi National Olympic Committee said it could not find a woman qualified enough to compete.

Most Muslim-majority countries have sent female athletes to compete in the Olympics for decades. More Muslim women are competing in sports today than ever.

But even when women are included, competition remains a challenge, particularly because of athletic dress codes. In 2007, the International Federation of Association Football issued a ban on the hijab or headscarf. But this year, FIFA has lifted the ban after testing new hijabs specifically designed for athletes.

In sports and in daily life, women have few rights in Saudi Arabia.

The country, according to a Human Rights Watch report, has one of worst records on women's rights in the world. Women are treated as legal minors and often must have a man's permission to leave their homes, seek medical care, participate in public life, study, go to government offices and courts or even make decisions for their children. The genders are strictly segregated. Women cannot drive.

It would be tempting to see the Saudi's decision to include women in the Olympics as a big step forward.

But as Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: "An 11th hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia."

The signs of change for Saudi women are yet to come.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jocelyne Cesari.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT