7-16-2012By Alison Searle
Human Rights Defenders
Just one month before the beginning of the 2012 London Olympics, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will allow women to participate—a first for the Kingdom. This means that for the first time in history, every competing nation will send both men and women to the games.
Over the objections of many religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia, one woman will participate in the 800m track event, and another in the judo competition. Pressure from NGOs and the International Olympic Committee to allow female participation as outlined in the Olympic Charter compelled Saudi Arabia to alter its policy.
These two Olympians will break new ground, especially if you consider that Saudi Arabia still prohibits women from joining gyms and participating in all public and organized sports. Both athletes will be required to wear attire that “preserves their dignity,” which will likely include a head scarf and loose-fitting garments.
The U.S. State Department has recently taken an important step to acknowledge the importance of opening up sports to women. Last month, it announced the creation of the U.S. Council to Empower Women and Girls through Sports, to be headed by Secretary Clinton. The council will engage domestic and international audiences to promote a global conversation on sports as a means of empowerment.
Historically, sports have not been high on the State Department agenda. While the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, all have a designated Minister of Sports, the U.S. has no formal post and instead lumps sports-related issues into the Department of Education.
The Council for Women and Girls will incorporate sports into leadership and social empowerment initiatives in the U.S. and facilitate sports-based exchanges with women in other countries. The council could be a blueprint for other countries, demonstrating how to empower women by increasing their participation in sports.