DUBAI: Human Rights Watch warned on Monday that despite a Saudi announcement which allows its women nationals to participate in the 2012 Olympics, millions of women are still banned from sports in the kingdom.
“It’s an important step forward, but fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom,” the New York-based watchdog said in a statement.
“Millions of (Saudi) girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools,” HRW added.
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in London issued a statement on Sunday announcing that women will be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games for the first time.
The Saudi Olympic Committee will “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify,” the BBC quoted the statement as saying.
So far there has been no official confirmation of the report from Saudi Arabia, and none of the local newspapers reported the announcement on Monday.
The issue of women participating in sports remains extremely sensitive in the kingdom, where women are not even allowed to drive and the authorities shut down private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010.
Equestrian contestant Dalma Malhas is likely to be the country’s only female athlete to qualify for this summer’s Games in London which get under way on July 27.
The fact that “so few (Saudi) women are qualified to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country’s restrictions on women’s rights,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at HRW.
Worden urged the Saudi authorities to “allow sports in schools, gyms for women, and to add women to the Saudi National Olympic Committee immediately.”
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics.
Qatar has already announced it will send a three-woman team to London, comprising shooter Bahia Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Wafa Arakji and Noor Al-Malki, a 100m and 200m sprinter.
Brunei, meanwhile, will send a woman to London as part of its two-athlete delegation — 400m hurdler Maziah Mahusin.
Saudi Arabia’s decision could provoke resistance in the country which operates under a strict Islamic code under which women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe.
There had been increasing pressure on the Saudis to fall into line over sending a women’s team with International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge admitting in April that he was conducting lengthy talks with the kingdom’s rulers.