Baby Steps: Saudi Arabia Finally Lets Female Athletes Compete At Olympics

Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it would allow female athletes to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time this summer, amid threats that it would be barred from the games altogether if it didn’t.

In a statement, the Saudi embassy in London said the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee would “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify.”

But don’t expect female athletes to turn out in droves to represent the Kingdom in London—physical education for girls is not allowed in public schools, and in 2010 the government closed private gyms for women.

In fact, Dalma Mathias, an 18-year-old equestrian, is likely to be Saudi Arabia’s only female Olympic contestant.

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries to never have had a female athlete participate in the Olympics. The other two, Qatar and Brunei, don’t ban women’s participation in sports, and both expect to send female athletes to the Games this summer.

Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record is especially dismal when it comes to women, who are barred from driving or working (unless they have a spouse’s permission). Saudi women also have few options for protecting themselves against violence.

Despite some efforts from King Abdullah to improve women’s rights, gender equality reform in Saudi Arabia remains a slow, halting process, with one official in the Kingdom calling the issue “very sensitive.”

The benefits of participating in sports have been well documented: In addition to health benefits, sports provide leadership and socialization opportunities for young women. Let’s hope Saudi Arabia follows through on its plan to lift its ban on physical education for girls in public schools.

Image credit: BigStockPhoto.