July 3rd, 2012
05:13 PM ET

Saudi female Olympians: Historic breakthrough or false dawn?

Dalma Rushdie Malhas will not be the first Saudi female Olympian as her horse is injured.
Dalma Rushdie Malhas will not be the first Saudi female Olympian as her horse is injured.

"First Saudi Woman to Compete in Olympics" is one of those headlines journalists live for.

In an ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom where women can't drive, can't travel without the permission of a male guardian or practice sports in public schools, women are no longer forbidden from participating in the world's highest profile sporting event.

Or so we thought.

Following months of debate and mounting international pressure by human rights groups calling on the International Olympic Committee to ban the kingdom from participation on grounds of discrimination, on June 24 Saudi Arabia's London embassy published a statement saying the country "is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the Games."

The media held their collective breath in anticipation of a grandiose announcement by Saudi royals proclaiming a great move forward for women's rights in the kingdom.

After more than a week, the first official comment came on Monday in an interview in a local Arabic-language paper with the Saudi Sports Minister and Head of the Olympic Committee Prince Nawaf Al-Faisal outlining the conditions for female participation in any international athletics event, including the Olympics.

"The female athlete's male guardian must give his permission and accompany her to any competitions," Prince Nawaf told the paper. Women also have to "wear appropriate Islamic dress" (which likely includes a headscarf and loose-fitting garments) and "there must be no mixing with men during any game".

To ensure no one is tempted to stray, the woman and her male guardian must both sign a pledge vowing to abide by these conditions before she would be allowed to compete.

For months journalists have been hounding the media-shy 20-year-old female equestrian show jumper, Dalma Rushdie Malhas. U.S.-born and Paris based, she was the most likely candidate to be the first Saudi female to compete at the Olympics after winning a bronze in 2010 at the Youth Olympics.

"This is a dream come true," an excited Malhas told CNN following the initial announcement. "This opens many doors for women."

Malhas had already been invited to compete by the IOC but the new Saudi decision meant she would finally have national endorsement. She is not veiled and it is not clear whether she would agree to abide by these conditions and hard to even imagine what kind of loose garments an equestrian could feasibly compete in.

A day after the landmark statement, it was announced that Malhas, was not even in the running. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) issued a press release saying Malhas had failed to qualify for the Games due to an injury her horse had suffered.

"We understand that the IOC has a number of other female athletes from Saudi Arabia in other sports who are currently under consideration," added the FEI statement.

Mere weeks before the games are set to begin, these other athletes have yet to appear. The strict new conditions are not an encouraging sign and there is no indication yet of what the IOC thinks of these conditions. Would "Islamic dress" be approved for competition? Is it not still discrimination to force women to be chaperoned and sign a document promising to stay segregated?

For those watching the story unfold, it is a hollow victory for Saudi women.

The quiet announcement lifting the ban on female participation paired with Malhas' disqualification means that, in theory, the kingdom could avoid the embarrassment of an IOC ban without actually having to field female athletes.

Human Rights Watch described the lifting of the ban as "an important step forward."

"But," adds Minky Worken, director of HRW's global initiatives "an eleventh hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia."

Although it made the headlines of the international media, the story was, disappointingly, almost non-existent in the Saudi press and this Olympic debate speaks to a much wider issue of women's participation in society as a whole.

The Saudi political system, led by a relatively reform-minded King Abdullah, is in constant struggle between ultra-orthodox Islamist clerics and those who would like to see the kingdom evolve socially and culturally. Currently the establishment actively discourages women from being athletic by banning sports in girls' public schools and issuing statements by clerics calling female athletics "immoral".

Find any article about Saudi female athletes and you'll see one of two photos: either Malhas competing in 2010 or a group of veiled women stretching on a basketball court.

Those women are the members of Jeddah United, a private basketball team and sports company, purportedly the first private female sports club in the kingdom. Starting with 12 players in 2003 they now boast 350 members, mostly children of both genders.

Their founder Lina Al Maeena, who plays center on the team, said she loved basketball as a student at a U.S. college and when she struggled with post-partum depression it was the athletics-induced release of endorphins that helped her recover.

Al Maeena says it's not about challenging norms (the women play in private female-only facilities) but about wellbeing.

"It's a social debate that we have to go through to promote [sports] and tell society, or the opposing segments in society, that we're not going against our religious or cultural beliefs," Al Maeena told CNN in February.

It is possible that as billions tune in for the July 27th Opening Ceremony we may see a woman marching proudly in the Saudi team as it files into the Olympic stadium. But this unlikely event may be as downplayed locally, like other women's issue in Saudi.

Some will say this will be a token gesture to appease the West. Others will say this is King Abdullah's subtle way of introducing quiet and organic reform without the pomp and circumstance that makes good television.

"The most important thing is not to win but to take part" is one of the Olympic mottos. How very true.

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Filed under:  Olympics
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Alex Gordan

    I have been in the kingdom for the past three weeks, saw a lot of saudi women shopping alone and going to places freely. I wonder where is the oppression we here and see on tv?
    Regarding the sports as explained to me by my Saudi friends 90 precent of the Saudi women dosen't like to participate in some sports, for the reasons of their exposer to the other sex.

    July 4, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  2. Nadia

    Alex Gordon, you are Saudi, aren't you? The grammar and spelling mistakes gave ou away.

    July 5, 2012 at 12:18 am | Reply
  3. snomannn

    Alex Gordan........If you see women "shopping freely" what ever that means......it only is because their male jailer gave them permission to do so. How would you like it if you had to get permission to do the simplest of things? Need to gas up the car?......gotta get permission. This is not only silly, but very demeaning.

    And, as for women playing sports.............why would you expect them to wish to when they have never been exposed to sports or allowed ever to play them in the first place?

    Physical exercise is very good for the heart and body, but women are not allowed to attend to their own health, like men are.

    Personally, I think the Saudi's have this all backwards.....the men should be kept our of sight and need a woman's permission to do anything, like drive a car, go out on their own, freedom to wear clothing that is comfortable and weather appropriate, etc.

    Women don't cause world problems, it's the war loving men who do.

    July 5, 2012 at 4:41 am | Reply
  4. Muhammaf Faizan

    I don't understand why the world focuses so much on women rights in Saudi Arab or other Islamic countries when the problem with the Filthy women revolution has gone out of control in their own states.!!!!!! Islam provide a neat solution to every single problem of the Modern world. The Only problem is that they are injecting lies into the innocent minds with deceptive revolutionary talks and Materialistic Gains, which the innocent minds cannot comprehend. But the real reason is that is that the Modern world rejects the true meaning of women and the rights of Women and want to exploit the women by empowering them with political rights. Just by giving them political rights will never solve any thing. How the modern world looks into the life of a women and has ever looked into it since the 10 or 12 century is by displaying them as a symbol of slaves and use them for benefits.

    July 5, 2012 at 5:29 am | Reply
  5. adifferentshadeofblack

    Its funny that we believe in aliens, but refuse to believe in the possiblity that there may be women who live in other parts of the world and who may hoose to dress modestly.

    The latter doesnt create a ruckus about their scantily clad counterparts in the Land of the free. Just as us americans choose to shed our clothes, these women chose to cover up. Far from being oppressed, they cover up due to their sense of piety.

    Live and let live.

    July 5, 2012 at 6:01 am | Reply
  6. Durka Bakalakadaka

    Where is her burka? COVER YOURSELF HARLOT!

    July 5, 2012 at 6:25 am | Reply
  7. Adlas

    Why does the western media seek to impose your values on other cultures again and again? Why can't you just respect that there are certain things which are different and leave it at that?

    July 5, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
  8. Muslim

    Why is US behind Muslim women, US can look at the status of their own women and improve it, in US many women as used as S ex objects

    July 5, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
  9. Turika Karadina

    Rather than veil women to prevent male lusts (what raging beasts the Saudi men must be, if they can't control themselves), I suggest the men be chemically castrated. Please! Mohammed never said anything more than that men AND women should dress modestly; all the rest of it is power tripping by wizened male clerics. Makes. Me. Sick. Very glad to be an American women, and very sad for my Saudi sisters.

    July 5, 2012 at 9:46 am | Reply
  10. Quilan

    Well, Alex, did you see any woman driving?I guess this all oppression thing is just the Western media imagination.

    Shame on us. Really.

    July 5, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  11. Brackster

    This is absolute nonsense... In 5th century AD people considered woman as man's property... S. Arabia is the only country in the world where 5th century nonsense in still followed

    July 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  12. Gustavius

    We want to save the Saudi women from the oppressed lives they live? Most of them resent our attempts to re-define how their lives should be lived. To put the shoe on the other foot, the Saudis think Sharia law would be good for us in North America. How would we feel about that cultural and legal system being imposed on us by foreigners? Let the Saudis be Saudis. It's what they want.

    July 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  13. Tariq

    I'm really wondering why people can't compare the crimes committed on women in USA or in any western country to that in Saudi arabia or in any Islamic country where islamic obligations are met. also, even you don't have much experience in statistics, you can realize how Islam protects women with simple thoughts.
    I'm a mature saudi male, will not take on women's behalf but will say the truth that doesn't satisfy people who seems to be an animal just hound for their desires with all meanings of demeaning women..
    i wish if westerns try work on their crisis and try to find solutions to reduce the high rate of rape, abortion, and sexual harassment instead of trying to draw others in their deep hole!
    so, mind your own business ;)

    July 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  14. zeynep

    crime level is low because you treat women as slaves? seriously. get real. poor women. just take your hands off women. you go wear those stupid clothes and you stay at home if it is that good idea and you ask permission since it is another brilliant idea.

    but it is somehow their fault too. women raise those retarded brained males. they should raise them as normal human beings instead of a caveman.

    July 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  15. Stanley

    This won't be the first time the Saudis made an announcement that sounded progressive but turned out to be false. Back in 2009, KSA the Human Rights Council in Geneva that women could leave the country and get elective surgery without a guardian's approval. A month later Human Rights Watch reported that the proposed changes had never been made. Go to the HRW website for corroboration.

    July 7, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  16. fuckislam

    @tariq:
    In USA people will get punished once they try to sexually assault a women, while in your country the women will get punished after get raped.

    nice logic, no wonder retard man loves ISLAM

    @muslim:
    in muslimic country women are slaves,

    still USA is a better country for women than any MOSLEM country

    July 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  17. MC Arab

    Story ... Interesting...

    Fat depressed hypocritical comments following ... priceless...

    Outcome... Niet...

    July 8, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  18. cantwegeton

    @Tariq and all the other supporters of keeping their women enslaved. Cnn broadcast today what happens to women when they step out of line in the Moslem world, They shoot them! The brave Taliban soldier fired multiple shots into the chadured female until she slumped over. Her crime she had three males fighting over her. Or she was raped by three men, or she WAS having an affair! How women achieve having an affair with a constant male guardian baffles the imagination. Here in the States that would be called pimping. By the way Alex Gordan, did you see any public executions while in Saudi Arabia? The women you saw shopping unattended were likely members of the Royal Family. I understand it is an extensive family, over 70,000 in a recent published statistic.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:56 am | Reply
  19. Wilbert Guerino

    American women are quite nice and pretty. Most american women are very educated and they could also be somewhat dominating over men '*.:,.

    July 9, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
  20. Muhammad Faizan

    @fuckislam

    Sorry to say but from where did you got the concept that in Islam if someone commits adultery whether its a male or female, then only the female will get punished.
    This is the very reason that i.e the lack of Knowledge about Islam which prototypes the the Islamic law to go against the Humanity but actually they point entirely different thing.
    Let me give you the reference from the Quran on what is the punishment of a Adulterer (Male and Female)
    Chapter[24:1]
    (1) The adulterer and the adulteress, scourge ye each one of them (with) a hundred stripes. And let not pity for the twain withhold you from obedience to Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a party of believers witness their punishment.

    Please Sir who ever you are don't manipulate Islam in your own way, first know the source then point a finger.Thank You

    July 12, 2012 at 5:50 am | Reply
  21. Muhammad Faizan

    @cantwegeton
    Nice to hear on your thoughts about how the Muslim world is treating the women, but you have to ask your self a question and ponder on it that whether news which is fed to us is it all really authenticated and researched out or its all a fabrication and a Lie !!!!!!.
    Women in is Islam is not considered as a slave but given a greater higher degree of respect to them, by giving women the Hijab it is not disrespecting them but in actually a protection against the lustful eyes of the Sexually frustrated world. If you like history i would recommend you to read the value of women in the medieval era then you might understand that how has Islam has contributed in providing the respect to the women. i hope i made clear some points as women in Islam is a whole Agenda of discussion that if we start discussing it, I am sure that you will understand many thing out of it and clear our many misconceptions about women in islam!!!!!!!

    July 12, 2012 at 6:04 am | Reply
  22. Idk..

    If Saudi Arabia is such a protector or worshipper of women, Explain Female Genital Mutilation.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  23. Drod

    It would be nice to hear from a Saudi women on her views about this rather than American and Saudi men debating on how they think she feels.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  24. LIVED IN THE US AND MID EAST

    hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    DROD I really respect you your an educated man!

    July 13, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  25. thatcrazypremed

    If you actually look a the qur'an, there are very few laws that are set in stone. Most of it is grey area. In other words, most of it is ambiguous and UP FOR DEBATE. The reason this was made was so that people could adapt Islam to changing times. A system that worked hundreds of years ago might not be the best one for now, and these grey areas were supposed to make Islam flexible.

    All this b***** about sharia law comes from men in power wanting to control women to keep themselves in power and have the support of other highly patriarchal men. Sharia law IS NOT SET IN STONE. Look at history. Look up what ijtihad is. There used to be discussions about it. Women used to be jurors and judges. There was a famous woman who stopped an uprising just by using her word.

    Like in other countries, Saudi Arabia uses women's rights as a political tool. It has very little to do with Islam. It has to do with them using Islam as a political tool to keep their stupid royal family in power (royal family which goes to Bahrain and the UAE to drink and do behavior prohibited in their country).

    To the other commenters above...you guys REALLY need to go read a book. Genital mutilation? That occurs primarily in Africa and is based in culture, not religion. In fact, Islam prohibits cutting of the body (just like it prohibits tattoos) because the body is sacred. Saying women are better off as slaves? Lol, I'd love to see you as a slave and see if you think it's "better off". No one should be slaves. Rulers shouldn't use religion to abuse people who have historically been oppressed.

    Women rights abuse is everywhere. No matter what country you go to, you will find women who have their rights taken from them. In the US, women are objectified and made into sex objects, deal with harassment (like many other places), have their reproductive rights become issues of national debate, and get lower wages than their male counterparts.
    In Saudi Arabia, women are made to be excessively dependent on their husbands and thus their individuality is, to a certain extent, limited.

    Whoever thinks that this issue is just about Islam is obviously too simple to understand how complex women rights is in these dictator countries. They are a form of control, a rallying point, something that can be used to show how they are "different" from Western countries, and a way to keep the country fixed in the old past rather than embracing new things (and thus risking getting thrown out of power).

    July 14, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  26. The Truth

    @Idk..

    Genital Mutilation is not a Saudi thing... its an African custom.

    July 15, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  27. The Truth

    In regards to the Olympics.... just read the names of the ppl who actually participate... male and/or female.

    They are either the Elites of the Saudi society; or immigrants.

    When it comes to rights.... everybody in Saudi lacks them. Some more than others. It is all about who you know and how much money you have.

    July 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  28. Jessica Smith

    You are a harlot for calling her that.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:50 am | Reply
  29. truthfulguidance

    Wow. My Family has lived in Saudi for 30+ years. My Mom would wear Niqab and wasn't aloud to drive either but, she loved the country. She said most of the women she has met are okay with the way the government works. Of course it sucks not to be able to drive, but it isn't like, "Holy crap, I can't drive! Its the end of the world." Though this driving law issue has nothing to do with Islam, that is what the western media potrays. Saudi is a really nice country and they do have some flaws and not everyone agrees with them, but what country doesn't?

    July 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  30. Joey Navis

    all of this nonsense about women and rights, look where it has gotten us,, we have michelle bachman (sp?) in one of our highest offices. i mean really, people, women driving.?? shopping without permission of their male dominator, next thing u know they will want to work,,,, and eventually they will want to be paid. they will demand actual human rights, and we all know that father allah, or father god for u western fundamentalists, only ordained such rights for the male of the species. tut, tut, tut. if we give in here, women might eventually influence decisions. could u imagine women running the world, we would probably lose our biggest source of income as well as population control,, war might become a thing of the past. we cant have that!!

    July 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  31. Never moody

    I honestly feel that most of theses people on this message board r so utterly stupid and ignorant...theses crimes against women happen everywhere...do your research before you talk out your ass! Men everywhere will always feel superior to women...so they will continue to sell , rape , enslave, abuse shall I go on! But I look at things this way what comes around goes.

    July 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  32. Never moody

    It has nothing to do with being Muslim , catholic ,Jewish african , american white and so on its Men!

    July 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  33. elizabeth

    Anyone who wants to argue that women have equal rights in the US can then try to explain to me, in any rational way, the reason that women earn $0.77 for every $1.00 a man makes in the SAME job with the SAME qualifications. I am not convinced that a 23% reduction in pay speaks well to gender equity in the United States. It is a symptoms of long-lasting gender discrimination that is deep and far-reaching in its effects.

    August 1, 2012 at 3:03 am | Reply

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