25 Jul 2012

Women at the Olympics – inspiring change or token gestures?

Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar bring women to the Olympics for the first time, but are these real steps towards equality or just token gestures?

It’s being hailed as a moment in Olympic history and the overcoming of a final hurdle for female athletes around the world. By the opening ceremony of London 2012, every participating nation will have sent female athletes to represent them at the Olympics.

Up until now three countries had never sent a woman to the Olympics – Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But now all three have confirmed female athletes will represent them in London.

One young woman who has more than just metaphorically been overcoming hurdles is nineteen year old Maziah Mahusin, who will take part in the 400 metre hurdles event.

The athlete from Brunei will be the very first and only female Olympian to represent her country. Her personal best is 10 seconds outside the official standard qualifying time, but she has been granted special dispensation to take part in London 2012.

Start a trend

Maziah’s voice betrays her excitement, tinged with nervousness. She says she is proud, honoured and that it is a “dream come true.” She believes her debut will inspire other young women from Brunei and urges female athletes “not to give up too easily.”

Those are sentiments echoed too by the women representing Qatar for the first time. Among them seventeen year old swimmer Nada Arkaji (pictured right), who has spoken of wanting to “start a trend.”

But the story of women at the Olympics is not all celebration and excitement. Concern continues to focus around one country and it’s attitude towards women and sport.

An “encouraging evolution”?

Up until earlier this month, with just days left before London 2012, Saudi Arabia seemed set not to send any women to the Olympics. The country became the focus for womens rights campaigners around the world, who called for Saudi Arabia to be boycotted because of it’s refusal to send women.

For months the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it was negotiating and “in talks” with the country. Reports from Saudi Arabia seemed confused, with some officials seemingly endorsing sending women, while other local media said the country would not have female athletes representing them.

Then on 12th July, the announcement came that two female athletes will represent Saudi Arabia – Sarah Attar in the women’s 800 metres and Wojan Shahrkani in judo. It was announcement described by Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC as an “encouraging evolution”.

Olympics Gender Table

Yet some campaign groups say the move is not enough.

Campaigners from NoWomenNoPlay, who have been lobbying for sport rights for women in Saudi Arabia say it is “tokenistic” (see table, left) and “an attempt to cover up gender apartheid policies in Saudi Arabia.” They accuse the IOC of engaging in back room negotiations which have “failed” the women of Saudi Arabia.

Sporting opportunities for girls and women in the country are limited. A report from Human Rights Watch detailed the lack of physical education in schools, access to gyms and the shutting down of private sport clubs. Human Rights Watch have welcomed women being included in the Saudi team but say it means “little for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunity” in Saudi Arabia.

Female sportswomen in Saudi Arabia speak of the same problems. Jeddah United is one of the few private sport clubs which is thriving in the country. It offers young women opportunities to play football and basketball. Its founder Lina Almaeena says she was delighted at the news that Saudi Arabia would send women, but also told Channel Four News of the pressing need to address the situation for the many young girls who have no access to physical education in schools. Lina is hopeful. She believes seeing Saudi female Olympians will accelerate the process of change.

That process has a long way to go.

A Saudi Medical Journal suggests 44 per cent of women in the country are obese and suggested a lack of exercise is partly to blame. And it’s not just about access to sport. More general restrictions on Saudi women remain in place, whether it’s not being allowed to drive or not being permitted to leave the country without a male guardian.

For women in Saudi Arabia it seems the hurdle is that much higher.