Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Saudi women going to Games is a sham

By Jocelyne Cesari, Special to CNN
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
Saudi athlete Wojdan Shaherkani, left, arrives in London with her father for the Olympics on July 25.
Saudi athlete Wojdan Shaherkani, left, arrives in London with her father for the Olympics on July 25.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jocelyne Cesari: It's not an advance that Saudi Arabia sent two women to the Olympics
  • The country sent them to avoid a ban on participating, she says, but situation is dire at home
  • Cesari: Saudi women and girls cannot play or watch sports, except girls in private schools
  • Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records on women's rights in the world, she writes

Editor's note: Jocelyne Cesari is the senior visiting professor of International Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University and director of the Islam in the West Program, Harvard University.

(CNN) -- For the first time, Saudi Arabia sent two women to the Olympics -- Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, who will compete in judo and track and field. But their participation is far from a groundbreaking step for Saudi women.

It was touch and go whether one of the Saudi women, Shaherkani, would even participate this year when the president of the International Federation of Judo said women wearing headscarves would not be allowed to compete for fear of choking and injury. The issue has been resolved and she will participate in a form of headgear that complies with Saudi's strict Islamic dress codes for women.

But if Shaherkani had withdrawn, it would not have been a setback for Saudi women because her inclusion was not a sign of advancement. The presence of Saudi women is the result of several months of pressure by the International Olympics Committee on Saudi Arabia to include women competitors or face being banned from participation.

The situation for female athletes in Saudi Arabia is bleak.

Saudi woman will compete with headscarf
The rise of the Arab female athlete

Saudi women in general are denied the right to practice sports. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents girls from taking part in sports in government schools. Physical education is allowed only in private schools. Women are not allowed to play in official sports clubs or even watch matches in stadiums. Girls' football, volleyball and basketball games in private schools and colleges are held secretly.

Because of this ban, finding women with Olympic level training was a kind of mission impossible. Only a few days before its July announcement that the two women would attend, the Saudi National Olympic Committee said it could not find a woman qualified enough to compete.

Most Muslim-majority countries have sent female athletes to compete in the Olympics for decades. More Muslim women are competing in sports today than ever.

But even when women are included, competition remains a challenge, particularly because of athletic dress codes. In 2007, the International Federation of Association Football issued a ban on the hijab or headscarf. But this year, FIFA has lifted the ban after testing new hijabs specifically designed for athletes.

In sports and in daily life, women have few rights in Saudi Arabia.

The country, according to a Human Rights Watch report, has one of worst records on women's rights in the world. Women are treated as legal minors and often must have a man's permission to leave their homes, seek medical care, participate in public life, study, go to government offices and courts or even make decisions for their children. The genders are strictly segregated. Women cannot drive.

It would be tempting to see the Saudi's decision to include women in the Olympics as a big step forward.

But as Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: "An 11th hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia."

The signs of change for Saudi women are yet to come.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jocelyne Cesari.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT