Saudi Arabia isn't sending women to the London Olympics – but a boycott wouldn't help women's rights
By Jennifer Lipman
I go to a gym – or at least I did before the extortionate fees led me to cancel my membership – in an area with a large Muslim population. I know this not because of demographics, but because the gym had a "women only" section. And on any given day it would be full of women wearing headscarves, fully covered-up, working out with the best of them.
Islam isn’t the only religion to proscribe certain clothing as immodest; Judaism has strict laws on modesty too, and certainly Christianity calls for women to behave appropriately in other respects.
But, regardless of which religion it is, there are ways to uphold the requirements of the faith without compromising on lifestyle; this can be anything from working in “male professions” as a woman, to Orthodox Jewish women wearing the latest trends with added sleeves, or Muslim women exercising to their hearts' content in private spaces.
Modesty laws don’t have to be an impediment to lifestyle, yet they are in several countries, including Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have, it emerged this week, never fielded a female athlete at the Olympic Games – and are not planning to change that tradition in London this year. Hardly surprising for a country where women aren’t allowed to get behind the wheel of a car, but there you have it. Human Rights Watch have described Saudi Arabia's male-only team as “a black eye to the sporting community”, and emphasised the need to put pressure on the Saudis, as well as the other culprits, Qatar and Brunei. HRW especially wants the International Olympic Committee to take a harder line with the Saudis over the issue.
I’m not one for boycotts or bans; stopping the Saudi athletes from participating would not solve anything for the women back home, nor is it likely given the political considerations. Cultural shifts don’t happen over the course of two-week athletic competitions.
But in any case, the problem starts much earlier. According to HRW, women in Saudi Arabia have restricted access to physical education and sports clubs, and therein lies the problem.
Making this about the Olympics is an easy way for HRW to shine a spotlight on systematic sexism in Saudi Arabia. But the fight shouldn’t – at first, anyway – be about giving Saudi women a place at the international competitive table. It should be about showing progressive elements in Saudi society that women can play sport and retain their modesty; that running or throwing a ball need not be antithetical to religious dogma.
The last year has seen the development of a campaign by Saudi women to win the right to drive. Last month the Saudi government promised to press ahead with a law that would mean only women could work in lingerie and clothing shops. That's seemingly a no-brainer – in a conservative culture, the likelihood of a woman wanting to buy a bra from a man has got to be tiny. But these are small ripples of progress.
Women suffer incomprehensible abuses every day in Saudi Arabia, many of them on the grounds of "modesty". Advancing the rights of women has been shown across the world to be crucial, not just for them but for the broader progress of society, economically and socially. Yet while I wish it could, change isn’t going to happen overnight in Saudi Arabia, probably not by the time of this Olympic Games or even the next.
And if anything, blocking Saudi Arabia from the Olympics will only make change less likely, by encouraging a kneejerk response from the conservative elements and resulting in an introverted society that operates away from the world’s gaze. It’s far more important to make Saudi men and women aware that, to begin with at least, there is a middle ground, whether in terms of women’s only sections or other short-term fixes.
It’s easy to fear that things will never change for Saudi women. But a century ago British women didn’t have the vote, and until 1870, married women couldn’t own property. They too were things that at one time seemed impossible to change.