Ex-Olympics minister Tessa Jowell voices anger after report reveals discrimination against women in sport
Saudi Arabia has been accused of breaching the spirit of the Olympic movement by discriminating against women in sport and failing to bring a female team to the 2012 London Games.
Tessa Jowell, the former culture secretary and Olympics minister – who is now a member of the Olympic Board – said the Saudis were “clearly breaking the spirit of the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality” with their attitude to women in sport and the Games.
The Saudi government, which closed private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010 and severely limits their ability to undertake physical activity, is under mounting international pressure to adopt a more liberal approach.
Jowell spoke out after a report by Human Rights Watch highlighted the way in which Saudi Arabian women and girls are denied the right to sport.
The report found that, despite pledges to open up more sporting opportunity to women, “the Saudi government continues to flagrantly deny women and girls their right to practise physical education in schools and to practise recreational and competitive sport more generally”.
Based on telephone interviews with Saudi women, the report says that, having introduced schooling for girls in the early 1960s, the country “never added physical education classes to the girls’ curriculum”.
Those fighting for change have faced opposition at every turn. “Opponents of sports for women and girls put forward the ‘slippery slope’ argument that, once women start to exercise, they will shed modest clothing, spend ‘unnecessary’ time out of the house and have increased possibilities for mingling with men,” the report says.
“Others propose endless conditions for women and girls practising sport (for example that they must wear modest clothing and engage in sports away from the prying eyes of men).”
Because women are banned from driving in Saudia Arabia, their ability to get to gyms or sports events is further limited. “Saudi Arabia’s strict clothing requirements for women are a further impediment,” it adds. “Outdoors, a woman must wear a black cloak called an abaya, covering her from head to toe.” One woman told Human Rights Watch that a marathon was held a few years ago in which women could participate only if they wore the abaya.
The International Olympic Committee reserves a limited number of places for male and female athletes who are not required to meet the qualifying standards in swimming and athletics events. However, despite this concession, Saudi Arabia has never sponsored a female team and its national Olympic committee does not have a women’s section.
Jowell stopped short of saying the Saudis should be excluded from this year’s or future Games if they did not improve their record. But she called on them to demonstrate a commitment to change, noting that Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Sydney Olympics over its attitude to women under Taliban rule.
“The London Games would be the perfect opportunity for the Saudis to spell out a way forward,” she said. “I would like to see them set out a clear plan for equal inclusion of women in time for the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero. This has to be a substantive commitment.”
Barbara Keeley, a Labour MP who works extensively to promote women’s sport, said female athletes had fought for more than a hundred years to take part in the Olympics on an equal basis with men. “It is time to call a halt to discrimination against women in Olympic events. It seems totally unacceptable for any country competing in the Olympics to be allowed to have a team that is entirely male.”
A spokesman for the IOC said some progress was being made. “The IOC strives to ensure the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement are universal and non-discriminatory, in line with the Olympic Charter and our values of respect, friendship and excellence. National Olympic committees are encouraged to uphold that spirit in their delegations. The IOC does not give ultimatums or deadlines, but believes a lot can be achieved through dialogue.
“We have been in regular contact with the three national Olympic committees that have yet to send women to the Olympics, ie Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. As a result of fruitful discussions, the three NOCs included women in their delegations competing at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last summer. Dalma Rushdi Malas was one of them. She was the first female Saudi athlete to compete in an Olympic competition and claimed a bronze medal in the equestrian jumping event.”
from Toby Helm