In 85 days the spotlight will be on my hometown of London. Britain is hosting the Olympic Games. In my view, we will also be hosting an unwelcome guest. Saudi Arabia.
More than 200 nations will participate in this year’s Olympics. Saudi Arabia will be the only country attending that has banned females from its team.
The Olympics is symbolic. Its message transcends sport. African American Jesse Owens’, 4 gold medals in the 1936 games. Held in Nazi Germany. The Paralympics.
The Olympics is unique. It can protest peacefully and powerfully. South Africa was banned from 1964 to 1992 because of apartheid.
We must respect religion. But nothing in Islam mandates the forbidding of women playing sports. And the charter of the Olympics’ ruling body, the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, is clear. It bans any “form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.”
Afghanistan was thus banned from the 2000 Sydney games. For not only Afghanistan’s oppression of women. But specifically, laws forbidding them to play sports at all.
Women can now play sports in all Muslim and Arab countries. Except Saudi Arabia. Where it is beyond the reach of almost all women because of systematic discrimination. Two thirds of Saudi girls are thus overweight or obese. Diabetes cases amongst them are increasing. Despite this, Saudi Arabia does have one world class female athlete. Dalma Rushdi Malhas. An equestrian, she has wealthy, progressive parents. Who allow her to train in Europe.
How has Saudi Arabia gotten away with still turning up in London, without at least Dalma?
For the past few months the Saudis hinted they would reconsider their ban on women. When it became technically too late, under current IOC conventions, to ban the kingdom from the event? The Saudis confirmed they would be sending no females to the games.
Activists have launched an internet campaign calling on the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia anyway. The IOC must. Exclusion sends a message that the Saudis have to hear.
For this is not just about sports. The Saudi’s ban on their women representing them is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for violations against their rights. The women of Saudi Arabia can’t drive. Without a man’s permission they may not marry, work or travel.
The Olympics blazes a trail. Women athletes were first allowed to compete at the 1900 Paris Olympics. 79 years later Britain got its first female Prime Minister. The two are not unconnected.
What the IOC does, matters. The Saudis have played it for fools. Now it’s time for us, to make them play by the rules.