CAIRO — Across the world, word that Saudi Arabia would send women athletes to the Olympics for the first time immediately rocketed to the top of websites and broadcasts. In Saudi Arabia’s official media: Not even a hint.
The state-sponsored silent treatment was a lesson into the deep intricacies and sensitivities inside the kingdom as it took another measured step away from its ultraconservative traditions.
While Saudi rulers found room to accommodate the demands of the International Olympic Committee to include women athletes, they also clearly acknowledged that — in their view at least — this did not merit billing as a pivotal moment of reform in a nation that still bans women from driving or traveling without the approval of a male guardian.
“It does not change the fact that Saudi women are not free to move and to choose,” said political analyst Mona Abass in neighboring Bahrain. “The Saudis may use it to boost their image, but it changes little.”
Even the two athletes selected to compete under the Saudi flag — 800-meter runner Sarah Attar from Pepperdine University in California and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo — live outside the kingdom and carry almost no influence as sports figures. There is no other choice: Women sports remain nearly an underground activity in Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor of a website that aims to cover women and men’s sporting events in Saudi Arabia, viewed Thursday’s announcement as mostly an attempt to quiet international pressure on the lone nation trying to stick with an all-male Olympic team. The other former holdouts, Brunei and Qatar, had already added women Olympic athletes — with Qatar even planning to have a woman carry its flag in London later this month.
“We are still disappointed here,” al-Marzooqi said from the Saudi city of Jiddah. “I should be happy for them, but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sport in Saudi Arabia.”
Still, the opening is not without significance.
The Saudi decision must have received at least some nod from the nation’s Islamic religious establishment, which hold de facto veto power over nearly all key moves by the Western-allied monarchy and gives the royal court its legitimacy to rule over a nation with Islam’s holiest sites.
The inherent two-way tug — change-resistant clerics and leaders sensing reform pressures from the streets — has allowed enough slack for some slow-paced movement. King Abdullah has promised to allow women to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015. He also has tried to rein in the country’s feared morality police while challenges to the established order are growing bolder from a population, nearly half of which is under the age of 30.
Saudi women activists have gotten behind the wheel to oppose the driving ban, and bloggers churn out manifestos about how the Arab Spring will one day hit Saudi shores.
“If Saudi does field women athletes, it is immensely interesting,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This flies against the traditions of having a woman not make a public display of herself or mixing with men. Now, the world could see women marching with men in the opening ceremony and — even more — women running in competition.”
It’s impossible to gauge the internal discussions before the Saudi Olympic decision, but Henderson speculated it could have influenced by Abdullah’s daughter, Adila, who has been an outspoken advocate of reforms such as ending the driving ban on women. On the other end of the spectrum, senior Saudi clerics have issued a host of edicts against almost all types of sporting activities for women.
“Of course this will bring backlash from many religious leaders,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs that has been behind the “No Women No Play” campaign that called for an Olympic ban for Saudi Arabia if it resisted adding women. “This fight is far from over.”
As recently as April, a Saudi newspaper quoted the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee as saying he did not approve of sending women to the Olympics — suggesting instead they could compete on their own under a neutral flag.
A similar arrangement was made at the Youth Olympics in 2010 for Saudi equestrian competitor Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping.
“Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch “But without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities.”
For the wider Muslim world region, the Saudi decision also is unlikely to have a transformative sweep since the kingdom trailed behind even Afghanistan in opening to women sports.
Increasing numbers are taking part in regional sports competition and there are few sports Muslim women aren’t represented in — with Afghanis boxing, Pakistanis playing cricket and Emiratis in the Arabian Gulf taking up football and weightlifting. Iran, too, is considered one of the growing powers in women rugby in Asia.
But most experts acknowledged this progress is fragile and vulnerable to age-old cultural pressures.
Weightlifters in the United Arab Emirates have been attacked on social media and the Kuwaiti soccer team was denounced several years ago on its return from a tournament by conservative lawmakers who want a ban on all international competitions. In Iraq, a women’s wrestling club disbanded in 2009 after receiving death threats from religious groups.
Muslim women also face hurdles from the West as well. While rugby, volleyball and taekwondo federations allow head scarves, the football federation FIFA waited until this month to lift a ban — standing by rules designed for safety but seen by Muslims as discriminatory.
“This is a first small step,” said Raija Mattila, co-chairman of the Finland-based International Working Group on Women and Sport. “It’s good for the international stage, but we hope that it opens up sports opportunities for women and girls inside Saudi Arabia. So this is just a small first step.”