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
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.