Game On for Saudi Women

July 27, 2012

Saudi woman driver
Scores of brave Saudi Arabian women have been defying a long-standing ban on them driving. © Private

Saudi women just took one step closer to the finish line — as the 2012 Olympics are set to begin in London today, Saudi women will be competing for the first time. But there is still a long way to go for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, a country where women can now carry the Olympic flag, but not the keys to the car.

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a judo competitor, and 800 meters runner Sarah Attar will be the first Saudi women ever to participate in the Olympics. Just two weeks before the start of the games, Saudi officials finally ended their long resistance and joined Qatar and Brunei in sending female athletes to compete in the games for the first time.

With Saudi’s last minute decision, the 2012 Olympics in London mark the first Olympics where every country will have at least one female athlete competing. A country where girls’ sports and gyms are officially banned in public schools, Saudi Arabia will now cheer for their first female athletes representing the Kingdom.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that an International Olympic Committee spokeswoman noted that both Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar were accepted under the ‘universality’ clause, which allows athletes who didn’t meet qualifying times to compete when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality.

The news is wonderful for the Saudi athletes, and combined with women gaining the right to vote in the 2015 elections, the Olympic decision offers hope that the country is moving toward greater gender equality.

However, the road toward equality is a long one.  Saudi women continue their struggle for basic rights, including the ‘right to drive’. Last month, the Women2Drive campaign had to postpone its anniversary celebration (June 17) and its ongoing effort to lift the driving ban in respect for the death of Crown Prince Nayef earlier in June. Amnesty International USA supported the Women2Drive Campaign in celebration of International Women’s Day by collecting portraits of activists supporting the right to drive for Saudi women. Furthermore, 20,000 AI members supported the letter sent to King Abdullah urging him to overturn the ban. (Take action to support Saudi women’s right to drive.)

Evidently, Saudi Arabia has a long way to reach the finish line of ‘gender equality.’ Nevertheless, Sarah Attar’s 800 meter run at the 2012 Olympics certainly shortens the distance.

Lara Zuzan Golesorkhi, Saudi Arabia country specialist for Amnesty International USA, contributed to this posting.

This post is also available in Spanish.