By Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based commentator who writes and lectures on Arab and Muslim issues (THE WASHINGTON POST, 14/08/08):
Confession: I’m a total sucker for the Olympic opening ceremonies. Not the pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle but the athletes’ procession. When the Egyptian team arrives, I choke up and wave at the screen as if they could hear my cheers.
As an Egyptian, Muslim woman, I was proud last week to see 26 women on my country’s Olympic team. I was delighted to see a woman carrying the flag for Bahrain’s team and another doing so for the team from the United Arab Emirates — the first woman to represent her country at the Olympics.
But then the Saudi delegation marched into the “bird’s nest” stadium. And I wanted to yell: “Yo, Saudi Arabia, how come there ain’t no sisters on the team?”
It is time to protest the Saudis’ brazen disregard for women. If Saudi Arabia won’t put women on the team, then tell them not to bother showing up at the London Olympics in 2012.
Another country with no women on its team in Beijing is Qatar, which might seem especially galling since Qatar wants to host the 2016 Olympics. But the reason there are no women on the 2008 Qatari team is not that authorities keep them out: When Qatar hosted the 2006 Asian Games, 43 Qatari women competed. None qualified for the Beijing Olympics.
With practice and improvement, Qatari women could compete in London in 2012. Not so Saudi women. They have no chance to qualify because they are prohibited from playing sports of any kind. Ultra-conservative clerics have deemed women’s sports sinful.
If you’re wondering how sports could be a sin, look no further than a 2006 book by Saudi religious scholar Muhammed al-Habdan. “This is exactly what the disbelievers in the West want,” he wrote. “Their plan is to lure Muslim women out of their homes and subsequently out of their headscarf too.”
Besides the plotting of the West, another danger is the all-too temptatious women themselves. Habdan says girls might be attracted to each other after seeing their classmates in leotards and tight tops. That is why, he says, “good” Saudi girls do not disrobe — to change into those leotards and tight tops, for example — outside their homes.
I loved to play tennis and badminton at school, and these days I love to watch my 5-year-old niece at soccer practice. I can only laugh at such rantings.
The procession of teams in Beijing last Friday undermined Habdan’s arguments that women’s sports were a conspiracy by “Western disbelievers.” How wonderful it was to see dozens of Muslim female athletes who run, fence and lift weights, marching in the knowledge that they are role models not just for their countrywomen but for all Muslim girls who love sports.
Nor is Habdan’s hyper-sexualized ranting on leotards a concern. Some of those Muslim female athletes in Beijing wore headscarves, as did Sheikha Maitha Bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the 28-year old who carried the flag for the UAE and who will compete in tae kwon do. Others, like the women on the Algerian team, wore skirts and high heels. Their clothes were not immodest or immoral.
The presence of all these Muslim women at the Olympics is a clear message to the world — and to conservative clerics — that there is nothing in Islam that stops them from competing in the sports they love.
Saudi women are fighting back. A few days before the Beijing Games opened, Saudi women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a video on YouTube protesting the ban on women’s sports in her country. Others are directly challenging the ban by playing soccer and basketball without permission and learning to ride horses. Determined to be recognized, they are risking state anger and punishment.
Religious authorities banned an all-women’s marathon and soccer match, but the Jeddah United women’s basketball team makes public appearances as part of its fight against such bans.
The Jeddah United players have a natural ally in Moroccan Olympic gold medalist Nawal El Moutawakel, who this week became the first Muslim woman elected to the International Olympic Committee’s executive board. In 1984, Moutawakel became the first woman from a Muslim-majority country to win a gold medal.
She must tell Saudi Arabia that it’s time to have women on the team — and time for the Olympic board to insist that Saudi Arabia abide by the IOC charter, which bans discrimination of any kind.