Saudi Arabia: 'End Ban on Women in Sport'


As the world prepares for the 2012 Olympics, the Saudi government is systematically discriminating against women in sports and physical education, and has never sent a female athlete to the Olympics, with no penalty from the international Olympic authorities, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make ending discrimination against women in sports in the kingdom a condition for Saudi Arabia’s participation in Olympic sporting events, including the 2012 London Games.

“‘No women allowed,’ is the kingdom’s message to Saudi women and girls who want to play sports,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that women and girls cannot train to compete clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye.”

The 51-page report, “‘Steps of the Devil’: Denial of Women and Girls’ Right to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” documents discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education in denying girls physical education in state schools, as well as discriminatory practices by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, a youth and sports ministry, in licensing women’s gyms and supporting only all-male sports clubs. The National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia also has no programs for women athletes and has not fielded women in past Olympic Games.

In its interviews with Saudi women and international sporting officials, the report found that Saudi government restrictions put athletics beyond the reach of almost all women. There is no government sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men. The ban on women’s private, for-fee sports clubs has forced women to restrict themselves to fitness gyms that rarely feature swimming pools, a running track, or playing fields for team sports. Membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls. Official sporting bodies hold no competitive sports for Saudi women athletes in the kingdom and do not support Saudi sportswomen in regional or international competitions.

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries in the world never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics. The other two, Qatar and Brunei, do not bar women from competitive sports and their women athletes have participated in other international sporting competitions. Qatar has supported sports for women over the past decade and said that it plans to send women athletes to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

While the IOC has criticized Saudi Arabia for failing to send women athletes to the Olympics, it has not conditioned the kingdom’s participation on ending discrimination against women in sports. In July 2011, IOC spokeswoman Sandrine Tonge said that the IOC governing body “does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.” The IOC charter, however, asserts that sport is a right for everyone and bans discrimination in practicing sports on the basis of gender. In 1999, the IOC banned Afghanistan under the Taliban from participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics due, in part, to the Taliban’s discrimination against women in sport.

Human Rights Watch called on Saudi Arabia to act within one year to introduce physical education for girls in all schools, open women’s sections, and allocate funds to women’s sport in the youth ministry, the Saudi National Olympic Committee, and Saudi sports federations. The organization said that these steps are necessary evidence of a Saudi effort to end discrimination against women in sports and thus a prerequisite for allowing the kingdom to be represented in Olympic events.

“The IOC should live up to Olympic values and press the Saudis to start women’s sport programs as a condition for remaining within the Olympic family,” Wilcke said. “Sports can be a great cause for good, but forcing Saudi women to watch all-male teams represent them every four years can only demoralize those aspiring to sporting glory.”

Women and girls are not only denied the thrill of competition, but also the physical and psychological benefits, leading to longer, healthier lives, that participation in sports conveys. Obesity rates have been growing in Saudi Arabia in recent years, in particular among women, as have related diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In Saudi Arabia, between two-thirds to three-quarters of adults and 25 to 40 percent of children and adolescents are estimated to be overweight or obese, according to a scientific article in Obesity Review in 2011.

Addressing health threats through expanded sports opportunities for women and girls has also been supported by Saudi religious leaders. For example, Shaikh Ali ‘Abbas al-Hikmi, a member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious body, considered women practicing sport an “Islamic necessity” and ‘Adil al-Kalabani, former chief imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, supported opening women’s sports clubs.

Other government clerics of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, like Shaikh Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Khudair, however, have decried women’s sports as “steps of the devil” leading to moral corruption. The government has clamped down on women’s gyms, closing and denying licenses to several unauthorized facilities in 2009 and 2010. Now, only “health centers,” often attached to hospitals, may cater to women wanting to exercise.

One of the women interviewed for the report, Dima H., told Human Rights Watch that her happiest moments growing up were when she played soccer with her brothers, but that she was only able to play sports within the guarded compound of ARAMCO, the Saudi national oil company, which employs many Westerners and where women are also able to drive.

Girls, unlike boys, receive no physical education in state schools, and inferior quality physical education in the private schools that offer the subject. Of 153 youth ministry-supported sports clubs in the country, none have a women’s team. Only one private sports company, Jeddah United, boasts women’s basketball teams, while other women’s soccer teams train informally and play in underground leagues.

Even at state universities, there are few possibilities for women to practice sports. One female professor told Human Rights Watch that her dean introduced a sporting facility for female students, including basketball and table tennis, some four years ago, but that the sporting facility remains unused and the dean had since been edged out for being “too progressive.”

Human Rights Watch said that the exclusion of women and girls from sports and exercise in Saudi Arabia is part and parcel of the wide-scale, systematic discrimination against them in the country.Women have no rights to function as autonomous human beings; instead they are required to obtain permission from a male legal guardian (a father, son, or husband) to carry out ordinary life activities, including employment, education, medical procedures, opening a business or bank account, traveling, marrying, or driving. While Saudi vowed to reform its guardianship system in 2009, it has failed to take any measurable steps to reform the system. Women also face legally mandated segregation in all public places, including the work place, schools, and universities.

Human Rights Watch said that ending discrimination in sports has the potential to widen cracks in the guardianship system and other discriminatory practices.

“Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records of respecting and protecting the rights of women,” said Wilcke. “As the Olympics approach, it is time for Saudi Arabia to end this abusive system that denies women and girls the right to participate in sports and public life.”