UPDATE: Saudi Arabia announced last week that it will in fact allow women who qualify to compete at the Olympics in London, suggesting the kingdom had finally succumbed to international pressure. But that “who qualify” proved a big caveat. On Monday, the International Equestrian Federation said that Dalma Rushdi Malhas, the rider featured below, has failed to make the cut after her horse was sidelined by injury. As a result, a hunt is on for any Saudi women who might be able to compete in an Olympic event without appearing terribly overmatched. With qualifications in most sports near completion, those women may have to compete under a special exemption granted by the International Olympic Committee.
She’s an improbable portrait of Arab femininity. The hazel eyes peer not from the one-inch slot of a niqab, but from beneath a riding helmet. She lives in France, attends school in London and tours the world with a paint gelding named Flash Top Hat. Dalma Rushdi Malhas is the sort of autonomous, cosmopolitan citizen that the government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t believe a woman can be. Which makes it hard to believe that the 20-year-old equestrian needs a man’s permission to compete this summer at the London Olympics.
She’s still waiting for it. “Female sports activity has not existed [in the kingdom] and there is no move thereto in this regard,” Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s minister of sport, sniffed to reporters in April. “At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.” The remarks, Prince Nawaf’s most recent on the issue, are a blow to the dreams of Malhas, who won bronze two years ago at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, and competes regularly at Europe’s top equestrian events.
Saudi Arabia’s long-standing proscription on women competing in Olympic events, or other athletic endeavours, may prove an awkward subplot to the 2012 Summer Games. Last week, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee reiterated the organization’s belief that last-hour lobbying would induce a historic change of heart on the part of the Saudi government, making London the first Games in which all member countries sent female athletes. Yet the signals from Riyadh remain mixed, and as the July 9 deadline to register athletes nears, a less pleasing spectre is raising its head: one country entering the opening ceremonies with an all-male delegation, in defiance of Olympic charter ideals of equality; and the IOC unwilling—or unable—to do anything about it.
Why has the ultra-powerful body been so meek and gentle? To hear senior IOC officials tell it, because its policy of engagement with Muslim countries on gender equality is slowly bearing fruit. Since the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the number of nations with no female athletes at the Games declined from 26 to one. Qatar and Brunei have for the first time committed to send female athletes to London, leaving Saudi Arabia as the last holdout. And just days before Prince Nawaf’s discouraging words, a more senior member of the House of Saud, Crown Prince Nayef, raised hopes by saying the country would send women so long as the sports they compete in “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”
But the optimism quickly dwindled. An IOC executive board meeting in Quebec City failed last month to produce a hoped-for announcement, and the slow pace of talks since has spurred a growing chorus of feminists and human rights groups, who say the time has come to give the Saudis an ultimatum. The Olympic Charter, they point out, deems gender discrimination as “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” “It’s a scandal that mere weeks before the Games start Saudi Arabia is the lone holdout when it comes to the participation of women,” says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives with Human Rights Watch. “Their own charter is crystal clear on this point.”
Anita DeFrantz, head of the IOC’s commission on women in sport, urges patience, saying the Saudi talks are taking time because they skirt into complicated questions of Islamic beliefs and law. “This moves into culture and religion,” she says. “We know for a fact that Muslim women can compete at the Games. Some compete fully clothed. Some compete on the track, which can be almost the opposite of fully clothed. It depends on the article of faith.” But at least one activist with knowledge of the negotiations believes the IOC is reluctant to take action because it would make things awkward within the so-called “Olympic family,” noting that Prince Nawaf himself sits on the IOC. “Saudi Arabia is a true outlier,” said the person, who sought anonymity for fear of causing tension in the negotiations, “in terms of blocking aspiring women’s athletes and getting away with it.”
Regardless of the reason for delay, the critics aren’t about to let up. The IOC has taken action against countries over discrimination in the past, they note, banning South Africa from the Games between 1963 and 1990 over its policy of racial apartheid. It has even disqualified countries over discrimination against women—notably Afghanistan from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. It’s the sort of thing the Olympic movement is uniquely positioned to tackle, says Alixandra Greenman of the U.S.-based group No Women No Play, by dint of its enormous publicity reach, and because access to sport in a given country is a reliable barometer of a group’s socio-political status. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive or vote, and even need permission from male guardians to get medical treatment. When the kingdom shut down women-only gyms in 2009, Greenman argues, it was a symbolic strike against females who defied the existing order by daring to exercise.
Worden, of Human Rights Watch, figures the attention will work. “The one thing we know about Saudi Arabia,” she says, “is that they will respond to international pressure.” The challenge for insiders is striking a compromise that doesn’t entail Riyadh losing face with the entire world looking on. The most likely scenario, says DeFrantz, is the quiet, last-minute registration of an athlete like Malhas, who lives abroad and would not look out of place among the world’s top competitors. That might require a special exemption from the IOC: though she’s performed well on the world stage, the relatively inexperienced rider will be hard pressed to steal one of Saudi Arabia’s four berths in equestrian from established male competitors. Still, with so few women inside the country playing sports, and its self-stated principles in question, the IOC might not have much choice. This is one barrier Malhas and her horse can’t jump on their own.