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But if Shaherkani had withdrawn, it would not have been a setback for Saudi women because her inclusion was not a sign of advancement.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
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT