By Ali Al-Ahmed
Monday, May 19, 2008
The procession of the Olympic torch drew protests from Paris to San Francisco over China’s treatment of the Tibetan people, but no one has protested another tragedy that is afflicting millions of women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Muslim countries. Many Muslim women dare not even dream of the Olympics because their countries ban female sports altogether or severely restrict the athletic activities of the “weaker sex.”
In a few months world attention will turn to Beijing, where over 10,000 athletes representing approximately 200 countries will once again celebrate athletic competition without borders. Fittingly, the slogan of the 29th Olympic Games is “One World, One Dream.” This dream, however, will not be realized by women in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries that ban women from sports domestically and internationally.
The International Olympic Committee 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 Olympic Committee is failing to adhere to its own standards. While the hypothetical example of participating countries barring black athletes from the Olympic Games would have rightly caused international outrage, the committee continues to allow the participation of countries that do not allow women on their Olympic teams.
Although the number of all-male teams has been shrinking steadily – from 35 in Barcelona in 1992 to 26 in Atlanta in 1996 to only 10 in Sydney in 2000 and four or five at the last Olympics in Athens, the IOC should do more to eliminate the discriminatory policies practiced by its members in direct violation of the Olympic charter. The IOC should take the position that countries precluding women from participation in the Olympic Games should be suspended from the Olympic community until they allow women equal opportunity to participate. The Olympic committees in the Americas, the European Union, and other democratic nations should take the lead to develop a zero-tolerance policy toward countries that bar women from the Games. Olympic athletes, especially those who are world famous, should also express their support for the full participation of women.
Countries with men-only Olympic teams include Brunei, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. According to their respective governments, women are barred from Olympic participation for “cultural and religious reasons.”
For some countries, women’s clothing mandated by the conservative interpretation of religion precludes their participation in most sports – for instance, Iran’s female Olympians were limited to pistol- and rifle-shooting at the Barcelona, Sydney and Athens Olympics. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that completely bars women from any sports activity.
Yet there are many predominantly Muslim countries where women are allowed to compete. Susi Susanti became the first Olympic athlete to win a gold medal for Indonesia in badminton, and the majority-Muslim Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union impose no restrictions on female participation. Even Afghanistan sent a female runner to compete in a 100-meter dash in Athens (she competed in long trousers and a short-sleeved top). Algeria’s Hassiba Boulmerka won the 1,500-meter race in 1992 wearing contemporary running shorts.
For the last 15 years, many international nongovernmental organizations worldwide have been trying to lobby the IOC for better enforcement of its own laws banning gender discrimination. After the 1992 Olympics, the group Atlanta/Sydney Plus took the lead in pressing the IOC to increase participation of women in the Games. While their efforts did result in increasing numbers of women Olympians, the IOC has been reluctant to take a strong position and threaten the discriminating countries with suspension or expulsion.
If the IOC is pressed to live up to its own standards, the London Games in 2012 should witness the celebration of female Olympians from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and other Muslim countries.
Ali Al-Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington.