Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - For the first time ever, Saudi women can participate in the Olympics. The Saudi embassy in London announced the news yesterday, stressing that so far the only athlete able to participate is Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who has already qualified for equestrian competitions. Born in Ohio (U.S.), but with a Saudi passport, Malhas already participated in the Beijing Olympics in 2010. However, Riyadh has not ruled out other athletes who will be selected in the coming weeks. To preserve their dignity and the dictates of the Islamic Sharia, the women will wear a "sport hijab" that covers the neck, but not the face. The decision was taken after a long standoff between King Abdullah and the religious authorities, who are opposed to increasing women's participation in society. They would have agreed only to avoid the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the Games for gender discrimination.
In February, Human Rights Watch released a report on women and sport in the country, asking the Saudi government to respect the right of women to practice a sport and the International Olympic Committee to take action against Saudi Arabia. The Olympic Charter - which establishes the general rules of the Games - provides for the exclusion of any country that practices a form of discrimination. The norm in the past has been applied several times: South Africa, for example, was unable to participate in competitions from 1964 to 1992 because of apartheid, while Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Olympics because of women's oppression under the Taliban regime.
According to some Saudi officials, King Abdullah is trying to modernize Saudi society, starting precisely from a greater empowerment of women, but he is opposed by the more conservative wing of the government and by religious leaders. "The monarch", they say, "has allowed the participation of women in the Shura Council [an advisory body of the kingdom]. Participation in the Olympic Games is part of an ongoing process, not an isolated case."
In Saudi Arabia women live under the strict dictates of Quranic law. They are obliged to wear the full veil, can only leave their homes when accompanied by men and cannot drive a car. In the past, other monarchs have attempted to reform the Saudi society. The first was King Faisal, who in the '60s introduced compulsory education for girls. Today, women graduates outnumber their male counterparts.