Sport is unWomanly

Now here’s a huge surprise – Saudi Arabia isn’t “allowing” “its” women to participate in the Olympics. It has excellent reasons, of course.

Beans on toast are a powerful female aphrodisiac.

No, that’s not it. Rain makes Arab women go a funny greenish color.

No, Arab women are allergic to chips.

I’m being silly, I know this one – London streets are full of litter and coughed-up phlegm, so the women might slip and fall and get pregnant.

Wait. It’s high heels worn with jeans, that’s it – high heels worn with jeans are apostasy.

No actually it seems to be not about the UK at all, but about sports, and not to put too fine a point on it, any physical activity at all. Saudi women and girls are a kind of mushroom, raised in a dark corner of the basement.

Discrimination against women and girls in sports in Saudi Arabia – as in so many other areas of their lives – is entrenched in government policy, including:

·         Beginning from childhood, the government bans millions of Saudi girls from participating in physical education classes in state schools.

·         The kingdom discriminates against women by denying them access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.

·         The government has shut down private gyms established by women in recent years on the pretext that they were unlicensed.

·         There are no sports clubs for women, compared with 153 government-supported clubs for men.

·         The Saudi National Olympic Committee has no women’s section and does not hold sports competitions for women to allow them to qualify for national teams and international competitions.

See? Nothing. And it’s not as if they can go out running, is it. Fancy running in an abaya?


  1. Hertta says

    Why isn’t Saudi Arabia barred from the Games? South Africa was barred because of apartheid. What is this if not apartheid?

  2. benshaw says

    I know I’m missing the joke, but my experience of gulf region suggests Saudi Arabia would give London a run for its money on chip consumption, litter and phlegm strewn streets and jeans with heels (albeit only briefly glimpsed in the swishing of an abiya).

    Perhaps they worry that Saudi women will realise “I can have all these home comforts AND participate in sports?!”

  3. Torquil Macneil says

    What Herrta and Sarah said, the real shame here falls on the British and Olympic authorities for refusing to take action. This is not only an abuse of human rights, it is an abuse that is being paraded on an international stage and therefore with the collaboration of the UK authorities.

  4. peterh says

    “South Africa didn’t have oil.”

    South Africa has gold and diamonds. Oh. Wait…

  5. Dunc says

    South Africa was barred because of apartheid.

    Eventually. Actually, the Olympic Committee were very strongly opposed to excluding South Africa for a very long time. The Olympics were one of the last cultural events to get on board with the boycott, and only did so as a result of tremendous pressure from other African nations, sustained over many years.

    Particularly in the UK and US, we’re really not in any position to call for a boycott of Saudi Arabia, as we’re not only more than happy to trade with them, we’re actively supporting the regime. End up in a Saudi jail and your leg irons will be stamped “Made in the UK”, as will the electro-shock baton your jailer uses to torture you with. If we gave a damn about human rights, we’d stop selling them implements of torture long before we started worrying about whether they can participate in international sports.

  6. Hertta says

    South Africa was barred in 1962. Two years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the US.

  7. Cathy W says

    Beyond the basic issue of discrimination and access to competitive sports, my understanding is that official discouragement of exercise (heck, it’s even hard for a woman to go for a walk around the block!) has led to widespread inactivity-related health problems (including heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis) among Saudi women. This policy is literally killing women… slowly, but it’s killing them.

  8. Godless Heathen says

    What Dunc said @12.

    @Cathy W-Damn, you beat me to it. I didn’t realize that Saudi girls aren’t allowed to participate in PE. This makes me so mad! Physical activity is so important! And as a girl who could never sit still, I would have gone nuts if I couldn’t go outside and run around like the boys.

    Even now, even though I run very infrequently, the thought that I wouldn’t be allowed to go running in my neighborhood is infuriating.

    I wish the U.S. would stop supporting Saudi Arabia.

  9. Hertta says

    @15: It was relatively early. Many African countries were still under colonial rule. Other countries practiced racial segregation. But still there was enough pressure on the Olympic Committee to bar South Africa from the games that they actually did.
    South Africa wasn’t allowed to keep sending all-white teams to the Games but there’s no such tremendous pressure to bar Saudi Arabia for sending all-male teams. Fifty years later.

  10. Desert Son, OM says

    If the committee isn’t going to boycott Saudi Arabia for this kind of thing, my follow up question is would it have any impact if the other competing nations boycotted en masse? What if there was an Olympics in which no one showed up because the nations were unwilling to appear in support of an event that welcomes Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory practices?

    Or maybe this: show up and compete against the other nations, but when scheduled to compete against Saudi Arabia in something, the other competitors elect, as a political statement, to abstain from the event.

    Another idea: in any event where a Saudi wins a medal, the other medal winners in that event refuse their medal, or refuse to take the podium, or send a woman representative from their national teams to accept the medal and stand on the podium to highlight the utter lack of women representation in Saudi Arabian sport.

    The Olympics need another prominent Mexico 1968-style visible statement that highlights a huge socio-cultural problem and makes everyone from the committee level to the stadium seats squirm uncomfortably. Saudi Arabia isn’t likely to squirm uncomfortably anytime soon, so maybe if the rest of the world can, the external national pressure on Saudi Arabia can increase.

    But, anymore than I imagine the U.S. will curtail it’s oily relationship with Saudi Arabia in the near future, I don’t suppose such, or similar, suggestions are likely to occur.

    Still learning,


  11. kev_s says

    If the male members of the Saudi Olympic team had any decent moral sense at all they would refuse to take part. Some hope.

  12. GordonWillis says

    Ophelia, I can’t help putting this all together with your post about the ultra-orthodox Jews who ban women from a public meeting to discuss the internet. You say it’s because they have to keep the sexes separate. So presumably the men would not object if the women held their own meeting. Then they could compare notes (I mean, exchange notes through a neutral third party, obviously). But is it likely? I said “the women”, but of course I should have said “their women”, should I not? Just like in Saudi Arabia: “their” women can “watch”, but even the idea of their actually participating is, well, well, really, that’s, that’s, well, bloody hell, well, I mean… Obviously. Go out running? Go out driving? Go out? Bloody hell, women doing things, women being active, women doing things with their bodies
    I read somewhere not too long ago (pity I didn’t make a copy of it) that numerous Japanese men are saying that women should be more traditional because the new strong(er) women are making them nervous. Sigh. At least they aren’t invoking Yahweh, God or Allah to justify rape, flogging, mutilation, stoning or live burial.
    Two of my best students, young girls of 13 and 14, both brilliant (grade 8 piano and music theory, good at maths, articulate, well-informed, bi-lingual, one a prize-winner in our local music festival, both heading for diplomas at 15) like to be active and adventurous: athletics, mountaineering, swimming, canoeing… One of them is tiny and has only recently stopped looking about nine-years-old. It makes me mad to think of all the millions of clever girls who are deprived of the things that make life worth living. God demands duty and servitude, but notice that the entirely dutiful and servile are the women, never the men. I weep for these girls. How often in their lives — even here in democratic Britain — will they be forced to negotiate the shoals of male privilege and bigotry? It’s not culture, it’s not religion, it’s just sexist men taking what they want. That’s why even the secularist movement is infected by sexism. Sexist men can use religion to justify their expectations, but they can also use the pretence that because they are new atheists or secularists or skeptics or whatever they are not sexist, so their expectations and manipulations are perfectly reasonable.
    I’m perilously close to thinking that all religion and all culture is about sexual domination. Well, of course they aren’t entirely, but they are to such an extent that half the human population of the whole world is oppressed, and so this fact must be the most important consideration (not the assumed right of the Left to dictate to whoever is “identified” with that “culture”, or the religious person’s private relationship with their god). The thing is that men are very strong, and very full of sex. Lots of sex. We men think about it a lot. And it’s all the fault of women, obviously. And women are supposed to look after us and be nice. And women are our mothers and therefore do all the motherly things, so what women are “for” is to be nice to us men and give us our creature comforts and do all the servile things that mothers do and to be sexy and say “yes” and not be private persons. So sexism is not just about genes: it’s also about not growing up.
    Why don’t the Brits ban Saudi Arabia from competing in the Olympic Games? Because it’s only women. I mean, Apartheid affected men, didn’t it? and if we think of black slaves in America, don’t we think first of black men? (Yes, yes, we know that women and children were involved too, but they are not what we think of first, are they?) Women’s concerns are just not important enough to justify banning a whole country. That’s the simple truth. Why was Rebecca Watson a trouble-maker, not a person asking for respect? It’s the same, isn’t it?

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