As 19-year-old Saudi Arabian athlete Sarah Attar crossed the finish line of the 800m sprint at the London Olympics in 2012, an audience of 80,000 stood to applaud her. The crowd wasn’t congratulating Attar on victory—she had finished over half a minute behind competitors. Instead, spectators were responding to Attar’s historic presence as one of the first female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. Because the Olympics involve competing in front of a mixed-gendered crowd, the country had previously banned women from attending. When Attar and her fellow team member Wojdan Shaherkani were allowed to compete, the public was awash in optimism about what their performance would mean for female athletics in the kingdom.
This year at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of female athletes on its roster, sending four women to Rio. It would seem that Attar and Shaherkani did set a precedent. But the addition of female Olympians does not signal broader change to the strict regulations the kingdom imposes on women.
“The presence of female athletes [in the 2012 Olympics] made things worse, because it allowed Saudi Arabia to escape criticism,” says Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar who has published studies on women’s sports in Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Institute. “It was a fig leaf—they did this for the international community.”
A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), published on Aug. 4, shows that Saudi Arabia has made some notable advances in the realm of women and fitness, such as appointing Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud to head a new female department of Saudi Arabia’s sports ministry. But female athletes still face significant discrimination.
“In 2012 when two women competed in the Olympics, there was disappointment when that moment wasn’t followed by durable reform within the kingdom,” says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for HRW and the author of the report. “There should have been a greater lasting impact, but I think there was an absence of concentrated pressure.”
Today, women living in Saudi Arabia cannot participate in state-organized sports leagues, national tournaments, or even attend their national team’s games as spectators. Of the 150 official sports clubs, none are open to women. While boys’ schools have mandatory gym classes, the majority of girls’ schools do not include a physical education curriculum. Women cannot exercise in fitness studios with men, and female-only facilities are often denied licenses or shut down.
A few underground running clubs have popped up where women run in packs, covered by full hijabs. And some women have tried to operate gyms using health-club licenses, which are used by hotels and nail salons. But they can’t provide the same variety of activities, and their high fees make them inaccessible to many female customers.
As a result, the kingdom is experiencing a vacuum of Olympic-caliber female athletes. So how have four women been able to compete in this year’s Olympics?
In 2012, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave Saudi Arabia an ultimatum: include women in their roster, or be barred from participating. Rather than be disqualified from the entire competition, Saudi officials began sourcing talented women. Countries normally rely on federations to identify Olympic candidates through rigorous competition, but because of a dearth of resources invested in women’s sports in Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials were forced to hand-pick female athletes and enter them on wild-card entries, permitting their participation despite performing under Olympic-qualifying standards.
“In order to meaningfully take part according to the rules of the Olympics, there shouldn’t be one standard for female athletes in Saudi Arabia and one for the rest of the world,” Worden says. “It’s not fair to women to have them competing against Olympians who have trained their whole lives when they haven’t had a comparable amount of support to train.”
Without internal infrastructure to promote women in sports, officials were also forced to rely on female athletes who were either foreign or spent significant time training abroad. Attar, for example, grew up in California. Sprinter Cariman Abu Al-Jadail is a student at Boston University, while Judoka Wujud Fahmi trained in the United States and fencer Lubna Al-Omair in Egypt. In other words, all four women representing Saudi Arabia could only amass the skills needed to compete in the Olympics by leaving the country they ostensibly compete for.
Al-Ahmed worries these women placate the international public without being truly representative of most women’s plights in Saudi Arabia. “The girls going to Rio are going to cover up the suffering of 10 million women in Saudi Arabia, and many of them were not even raised there, or grew up in Western regions,” Al-Ahmed says. There are certainly Saudi women who could potentially compete at an Olympic level, but without the resources invested in female athletes of all levels, their talent cannot be developed. “You cannot have elite athletes until you have sports programs set up for girls in state schools,” Worden says.
This is not to discount the power and talent of the four women who are competing. Female Olympians play a meaningful role as public figures who inspire women to pursue athletic goals. Although Attar and Shaherkani’s participation in the 2012 Olympics was barely covered by Saudi Arabian papers—only one publication made mention of their performance, and was scrutinized for doing so—they remain important models of what could be.
Integrating athletics into the daily lives of Saudi women is not only a matter of nurturing top-notch athletes—it’s also mitigating a serious health crisis for the female public at large. In a report called “Killing Them Softly: How Saudi Ban on Women’s Sports is Harming Their Health,” Al-Ahmed and his colleague Ossob Mohamud found inactivity to be a dire threat to the health of Saudi women.
“Women in Saudi Arabia are being killed softly by their government,” Al-Ahmed and Mohamud write in the report. “Not by public executions or brutal rapes and beatings, but by day-to-day restrictions imposed on them by their government.”
A 2015 study found Saudi women had the second-highest level of physical inactivity of 38 Muslim countries, with 73.1% of Saudi women found to be physically inactive. The impact of this is evident in the fact that 70% of adult Saudis are obese or overweight, and females disproportionately so—men represent 26% of the obese population, and women 44%. A 2015 study also found Saudi Arabia also had the highest rate of diabetes compared to other Middle Eastern and North African countries and cardiovascular disease and diabetes accounted for over 50% of deaths in Saudi Arabia in 2014.
“This ban on women’s sports and active lifestyle is the most devastating of any other restriction, because it impacts their health directly, which impacts everything else—their education, family lives, and mental health,” Al-Ahmed says. He advocates for radical action, such as encouraging the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from participating in the Olympics until women in the country are given equal access to athletic participation.
Both Worden and Al-Ahmed believe the Saudi government should play a larger role in spearheading change. “When the government wants to do something, it can make it happen,” Al-Ahmed says. Some of these steps could include promoting female athletics through introducing physical education programs in girls’ schools, establishing sports federations for women, and ensuring women have access to gyms and spaces to exercise. Worden references Qatar as an example of a government with previously discriminatory policies that is now making an effort to support its female athletes. In 2001, the country set up a Women’s Sport’s Committee that has incorporated a sports curriculum in schools and hosted international sports events for women.
Pressure from the international community can also play an important role, especially after the Olympics end and the spotlight is removed from the kingdom. “The Saudis are experts at telling people what they want to hear and delaying reforms for ever,” Worden says. “The Olympics give an opportunity to check in and see how much progress there’s been, but the IOC and the international community have a key role to play not just at the time of the Olympics, but after.”
Ultimately, the answer to bridging the gender gap in Saudi sports isn’t sending more female athletes—it’s changing policy within the country. Women have made strides in pushing the limits of state law, but the next step is for the government to make a concerted effort to change.