By: Kathryn Bristor
Every two years, people around the world put aside their differences for sixteen days in order to cheer on their country’s athletic representatives. For centuries the Olympics have been a time when people of all backgrounds come together and proudly declare patriotic love for their nation. Sadly, not all athletes who qualify for the Olympic games have the same opportunity to represent their nation. Saudi Arabia is currently the most gender-segregated nation on earth. In 2012, Saudi Arabia allowed female athletes to participate in the Olympics for the first time. While these women received standing ovations upon crossing the finish line, many in their country condemned them for their participation in the games, referring to them as prostitutes. Although the Saudi government has begun a societal move towards modernization, the lack of female participation in sports continues to be problematic.
“‘Manal, you are divorced, your papers are in the court of Khobar.’” One text, 12 words, from her husband was all it took for Manal to become a divorcee. Manal is one of nearly 15 million Saudi women who are forced to live in a society that segregates and oppresses women based on one immutable characteristic: their gender. Saudia Arabia is one of many Middle-Eastern countries that still have a Sharia, or Islamic, the legal system in place. Among a plethora of obstacles this legal system places on women, adult women are required to have a male relative serve as their guardian. Similar to the guardianship of a minor, this leaves women with almost no authority over their own lives, requiring them to obtain their guardian’s approval before traveling, receiving an education, and even becoming employed. In 2015, Saudi women were allowed to vote for the first time and have recently been granted the right to drive in 2018. While progressive efforts are underway to change the extremist policies that reflect this traditional way of thinking, the pace is far from expeditious.
In September 2017, Saudi women attended the country’s national stadium for the first time in celebration of the kingdom’s anniversary. Starting in 2018, Saudi women will have the opportunity to attend sporting events in three of the country’s largest arenas that have been exclusive to men until now. While this undoubtedly marks a historic step for the country, men and women are nonetheless still segregated in public places. Accordingly, these sports stadiums will accommodate for families while still recognizing the culture’s traditional gender separation practice. Renovations have commenced in these stadiums in preparation for the historic change that is about to take place. Similar to other public facilities, this will entail division between men and familial units, which consist of women, children, and men who are close relatives.
In 2012, the International Olympic Committee informed Saudi Arabia that it would either have to allow women to compete in the London Olympics or be banned from participating altogether, pushing the country to allow female athletes for the first time. The long-time rejection of Saudi women in the Olympics stemmed from the concern that they would be competing in front of an audience filled with both men and women. Double the number of Saudi women participated in the 2016 Olympics as compared to the London Olympics four years earlier, still only a small increase from two to four athletes. Furthermore, the women are “limited to sports endorsed by a literal interpretation of the Quran . . . . [such as] equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery – Olympic contests that are ‘accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia.’” Following these laudable events, the burning question remains, “[H]as the growing female participation in the Olympics . . . had a meaningful impact at home, or is it just a gesture for a global audience?” While Saudi women are elated with these developments, others believe the celebration may be premature. Many human rights activists are concerned the few female Saudi Olympians are merely part of a governmental ploy to appease the international public, rather than a genuine effort to make significant policy changes back home. Saudi women still cannot obtain custody of their children in a divorce, eat in restaurants that do not have a segregated section for women, or even talk with men who are not close relatives.
Although some are skeptical of any progress ensuing from female Olympian participation, the country has shown signs of improvement. Following the Rio games in 2016, Saudi Arabia revealed a new program designed to get women more involved in exercising and sports that is spearheaded by Princess Reema. This proposal is one of many that, together, are referred to as Saudi Vision 2030. Saudi Vision 2030 is a proposal consisting of long-term goals the government hopes to accomplish and measures they hope to establish by the year 2030. The plan contains “commitments that are to be achieved by the public, private, and nonprofit sectors . . . . [The accompanying] model aims to translate the Vision into various implementation programs that will accomplish its goals.” In addition to fiscal and societal objectives, the plan also promises to improve women’s health and fitness through gyms and greater participation in sports. As part of this program, state schools offered physical education programs for girls for the first time in the fall of 2017. Because Saudi women have the second lowest level of physical activity among 38 Muslim countries, the ultimate goal for this part of the plan “is to make sure everyone leads happy, healthy and productive lives, and staying active and physically fit is a big part of reaching those goals.”
While the movement towards gender equality is hardly existent, with 70% of the population under the age of 30, Prince Mohammed has expressed hope to modernize the country. Although female Saudi participation in the 2018 Olympics has yet to be announced, Saudi women are hopeful that increasing female participation in these games and other events will continue furthering what some consider to be a progressive movement from oppression to equality.
 Cynthia Gorney, The Changing Face of Saudi Women, National Geographic (Feb. 2016), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/02/saudi-arabia-women/.
 Six Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do, The Week (Sept. 27, 2017), http://www.theweek.co.uk/60339/nine-things-women-cant-do-in-saudi-arabia.
 Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive 185 (2017).
 Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, Wikipedia (Dec. 11, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia.
 Six Things Women in Saudi Arabia Cannot Do, supra note 2.
 Emanuella Grinberg, Saudi Arabia to Let Women Into Sports Stadiums, CNN (Oct. 30, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/29/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-sports-arenas/index.html.
 Saudi Arabia to Allow Women into Sports Stadiums, BBC (Oct. 29, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41798481.
 Cynthia Gorney, supra note 1.
 Julia Case-Levine, While Saudi Women Compete at the Olympics, They’re Banned from Sports at Home, Huffington Post (Aug. 8, 2016), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/saudi-olympic-women_us_57a8d0fae4b06adc11f0d743.
 Saudi Arabia to Let Women Compete in Olympics for First Time, CNN (June 26, 2012), http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/25/sport/saudia-arabia-olympic-women/index.html.
 James M. Dorsey, Women’s Rights on Sporting Put Saudi Arabia, Iran on Defensive, Hürriyet Daily News (Oct. 27, 2014), http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/womens-rights-on-sporting-put-saudi-arabia-iran-on-defensive-73476.
 Monica Prelle, What Happens After Countries Finally Start Sending Women to the Olympics, Vice Sports (Aug. 19, 2016), https://sports.vice.com/en_au/article/vvwb78/what-happens-after-countries-finally-start-sending-women-to-the-olympics.
 Julia Case-Levine, supra note 13.
 Jamie Tarabay, Women in Saudi Arabia Still Can’t do These Things, CNN (Dec. 6, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/27/middleeast/saudi-women-still-cant-do-this/index.html.
 Monica Prelle, supra note 17.
 Monica Prelle, supra note 17.
 Saudi Arabia: State Schools to Allow Girls’ Sports, Human Rights Watch (July 13, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/saudi-arabia-state-schools-allow-girls-sports.
Monica Prelle, supra note 17; Julia Case-Levine, supra note 13.
 Saudi Arabia to Allow Women into Sports Stadiums, supra note 12.