Saudi Arabia urged to end discrimination in women's sports

New call from Human Rights Watch after Gulf kingdom selects all-male team to compete at Asian Games
Saudi Arabia urged to end discrimination in women's sports
Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia ran in the 800m of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. (Getty Images - for illustrative purposes only)
By Andy Sambidge
Fri 26 Sep 2014 10:13 AM

Saudi Arabia’s failure to include women on its team to compete in the Asian Games in South Korea is a backward step for women’s participation in sport, Human Rights Watch has said.

Human Rights Watch urged Saudi officials to make clear what steps they are taking to ensure that women are included in other future competitions and are able to participate in sports generally.

The kingdom has indicated it plans to send women to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but earlier this month officials announced a team of 199 men for the 2014 Asian Games, which is currently taking place in Incheon, South Korea and runs until October 4.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia’s 2014 Asian Games team did not include any women because none have yet reached a level for international competition.

Under international pressure, Saudi Arabia included two women in its team at the 2012 Olympics in London – Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field – although neither met qualifying standards. The two women were still required to be accompanied by their male guardians and to wear appropriate clothing.

“Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over – Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director.

“Refusing to send women to the Asian Games casts doubts on Saudi Arabia’s commitment to end discrimination and allow Saudi women to participate in future competitions.”

Al-Mishal was quoted by Reuters as saying that the kingdom is focused on training women to compete in only four sports – equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery – which he says are "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia".

“Limiting women’s participation to specific sports is yet another example of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women to compete on an equal basis with men,” Whitson said.

“Saudi Arabia should allow women to compete in sports across the board and offer them training equivalent to the training Saudi men receive.”

Despite the refusal to send women to compete in Incheon, Saudi Arabia has taken limited steps to lift the ban on women’s participation in sports internally since 2012, Human Rights Watch said.

In April 2014, the Shura Council, the country’s consultative assembly, directed the Education Ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in Saudi public schools. The move opens the way for legislation that could end the ban on all sports for girls in public schools.

Saudi authorities also began allowing licenses for private sports clubs for women in March 2013, and the first club opened in the Eastern Province city of Khobar in June 2013.

“Women’s sports have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said. “Now is the time for Saudi Arabia’s sports officials to lay down concrete plans for female sports in girls’ schools, women’s sports clubs, and competitive tournaments, both at home and abroad.”

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