In light of the 2012 London Olympics, there has been an excessive amount of attention drawn to the gender inequality that is currently being practiced. More specifically the fact that Muslim women are forbidden to participate in sports or any type of physical activity. Saudi Arabia has very strong beliefs regarding the placement of women, they are treated as minors. Women are not allowed to choose for themselves, they are to do as their male guardian instructs. In addition they are forbidden from traveling, working or studying without their male guardian’s permission. Saudi has been very open with their beliefs and practices regarding their women. The treatment of women in Islamic culture is gaining excessive negative attention. Human rights groups have interjected on their behalf, insisting it is time for a change.
“Islam is the governing religion in Saudi Arabia, and according to some interpretations of Sharia law, which the Kingdom abides by, women are not allowed to drive, be in the presence of male strangers, be admitted to hospitals, or get jobs without permission. They are not allowed within sports stadiums, and although there are no laws against women competing in sports, they cannot register for sports clubs with the government, there are no physical education programs for girls in public schools, and they are banned from national athletic trials, which is why no women actually qualified for the Olympics, and were instead invited.” (Pearlman) The Islam governing law very clearly dictates that women are subordinates. The laws of the land are not intended for them to question, only to follow.
In addition to the list of restrictions, it is openly proclaimed that Saudi women are denied the right to practice sports. They are currently the only country in the entire world that will not allow girls to participate in public school sports. In some private schools they do allow strict, segregated physical education. There are more than 150 official sports clubs that are regulated by the general presidency of your welfare, not one of them will allow women on the grounds let alone to actually play. All major stadiums bar women as spectators as well. Women’s football, volleyball, and basketball are held secretly. Obviously this ban makes it impossible to find women who are capable of competing. They have no support and no option to train even if they were to be allowed to participate.
A Human Rights Watch report, “Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia,” highlights, “Gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. Millions of girls are banned from playing sports in schools and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.” (Taplin-Chinoy) The once quiet, unnoticed country has quickly become the target of angry Human rights groups. Taking away the possibility for females of all ages to participate in recreational activities has created a lot of negativity towards the Saudi culture.
There are many given ‘explanations’ as to why women are unable to participate in sporting events or physical activities. The strongest rationale presented is that physical education will lead to Saudi women having to practice and compete in sporting events in front of men. This reason holds very little consideration to the objectors; however in the list of reasoning’s it holds the most clout. “In a country where all state schools mandate fully covering the face , the thought of Saudi women running in a conservative tracksuit with the face showing is simply too much for many to handle.”(Al-Nafjan) Women are expected to be covered from head to toe, showing skin only to their husbands or in front of other women. There is concern that wearing full-garb will hinder athletic possibilities and lead to the desire for women to wear alternate clothing. So no option is provided for women to participate wearing their cultural clothes, it is easy to band athletics in its entirety.
Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia insist that sports constitutes “the step of the devil” ultimately increasing the chance of immorality. This would greatly reduce their chance of meeting the requirements of marriage. A stipulation for marriage is that a woman must remain a virgin, or else she will not be legally allowed to marry. Conservative clerics even went as far as to classify women’s sports as satanic, corrupt, and charging that is spreads decadence. They even claim that running and jumping could damage a woman’s hymen, which will also ruin her chance of getting married. It’s also said that sports are too masculine, and women need to act as women. Participation will cause them to bulk up and be presented as a man instead being feminine as dictated by their culture.
The clerics are not the only ones who have had their opinions on women’s in sports. Many men fear it will be the beginning of women’s independence. They feel that participation in sports will lead to rebellion and even lesbianism. Women who interact with other women will come up with ideas to go against their guardian, or instinctively gain feelings for another female. It is a violation to their religious and cultural beliefs, or so it is argued. They are to be submission to their male guardian and most of the men feel that a woman has no place being involved in sports. Therefore, women who participate in physical activities do so in private, void of men.
The excessive publicity brought about demands for a change to the culture. “The Human Rights call follows a warning last year by Anita DeFrantz, the chair of the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission, that Saudi Arabia alongside Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female athlete to the London Olympic games.”(Dorsey) These threats from the Human Rights where taken seriously, and the Saudi Arabians complied with the demands. However the Saudi National Olympic Committee announced that they could not find women qualified to compete. Despite the government’s objection and the campaign of hate two Saudi Arabian joined the Olympics. These two are the first to represent Saudi Arabia in women’s athletics. Sarah Attar ran the 800 meter on the Olympic Stadium track. Wojdan Shaherkani participated in Judo.
The problem is not just a small situation that the media has decided to blow out of proportion. Statistically is polled that 91% of Muslim females feel that the reason that women are prohibited to participate in sports is due to cultural and ethnic factors. They may have no idea to the reality of their gender discrimination, but they can attribute it to their culture. Likewise, the majority of the females feel it is spiritual and physical challenges restrict Muslim women from sports participation. They cannot participate in the presence of men, making it difficult to be able to play any type of sports or physical activities. Consider the fact that 88% of the women state that sports is not considered to be respectable for women in Islamic countries. This is how they have been taught to believe. Additional findings reveal, “Muslim women are constrained by their parents from participating in sports was the view point of 86 % female respondents, 86 % said that Muslim women are constrained by their family and relative from participating in sports, while 85 % said that Muslim women are constrained by society from participating in sports. All the respondents (100 %) were agreed with the statement that Islam allows the women to participate in sports after observing Islamic dress code.” (Khan, Jamil, Khan, Kareem, & Imran) It’s not just the husbands that deny the women the ability to play sports, its fathers, uncles, brothers; it’s the culture in its entirety.
Saudi Arabia is a very religious culture. In fact, they are blaming their gender discrimination on their religious beliefs. The Holy Quran is the book of guidance in their Muslim religion. It states to take a holistic approach to health. “Just as religious life is inseparable from secular life, physical, emotional and spiritual health cannot be separated; they are three parts that make a completely healthy person. When one part is injured or unhealthy, the other parts suffer. If a person is physically ill or injured it may be difficult to concentrate on anything but the pain. If a person is emotionally unwell, he or she may not be able to take care of him or Quran, ‘Everything good that happens to you (O Man) is from God, everything bad that happens to you is from your own actions’.”(Holy Quran 4:79). Forbidding women from participating in sports is essentially contradicting the instructions from the Holy Quran. One, being man or woman, cannot be spiritually healthy if they are not physically healthy. Failure to exert oneself in some type of physical stimuli will ultimately lead to some type of health issues.
Another contradiction to the problem of women participating in athletics was found in the Huff Post World. “A Saudi female friend of mine from the Eastern Province, pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam is incorrect. To me it is a contradiction to Islam itself. The prophet said teach your children 3 things, archery, swimming and riding horse,” she told me. “Archery for being self-sufficient and getting food, riding horses for mobility and swimming for sport.” (Shihab-Eldin) This can be equated to in today’s modern society as getting a job, driving a car, and athletics in general. Yet these things are still forbidden for millions of Muslim women.
“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them,” Clinton said last June. “I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves, seeking to be recognized.” (Shihab-Eldin) The attention that these women are getting is enough to bring about change. Even if the women were unable to see such contradiction in their culture, the publicity is clearly bringing it to light.
The fear of losing control with their women and ulterior motives for wanting to participate in sports is not a valid argument either. The main reason the women take up sports is to be physically fit, and ultimately to have a slim figure. Women desire to have that perfect body and often spend an excessive amount of time trying to lose those “extra pounds.” “Jane Fonda’s book on aerobics, for example, is available in Farsi, with the photos replaced by drawings. The ideal of a slim figure is widespread in Iran, as it is everywhere. During the 1999 conference on women’s sports in Tehran, many speakers emphasized the significance of sports to acquiring a good figure. They argued that a good figure is a sign of health and being fit; it does not matter that the body is hidden under the long coats. It must be added, though, that commercial fitness gyms and aerobics studios are only accessible to a relatively small number of well-off Iranian women.” (Pfister)
There is a reason that all of these self help books, fad diets, and extreme exercise videos fly off the retailer’s shelves. The ideal image for women is to be slim. Even in cultures like Saudi Arabia, women still want to have that slender body. Advertisements, magazines, commercials, and many other means of advertising typically promote that slim model with the perfect body. That desire to work out and be athletic not only makes women feel better about themselves, it makes them look better as well. Allowing their women to participate in sports and athletic events will promote a healthier community. The men should want to support the fight against obesity in their community as well. Encourage their wives, daughters, mothers, or sisters to take pride in their health and overall well-being.
Obesity is a growing concern worldwide, not only in Saudi Arabia. Controlling obesity is important in preventing chronic diseases like hypertension, mellitus, and cardiovascular disease to name a few. Studies have shown that Saudis with the prevalence of obesity is higher in diabetic and hypertensive than Saudis compared to non-diabetic and non-hypertensive controls. The clerics and all other men in this culture need to acknowledge that weight reduction requires life modifications. This includes a revision in dietary habits and exercise. “Awareness about the harmful effects of obesity and measures that can be adopted to reduce obesity and prevent its development is necessary. These programs need to be implemented for all age groups. These Saudi females present an ideal group for implementation of awareness programs as they can apply this information to prevent obesity development in themselves, their family members and their children. Furthermore they can convey this information to others and hence set a stage for implementation of prevention programs.”(Al-Malki, Al-Jaser, & Warsy) Perhaps knowledge of the dangers and the importance of prevention is enough to change the arguments of a male dominant society. Basing it on the health implications that can occur when the body is denied what it needs could create a need for physical activities.
To persecute Saudi Arabia for their beliefs and practices is not the solution. Discrimination is a practice that is found in every country, it’s just that some more prevalent than others. Muslims that live in the United States still choose to participate in their cultural beliefs and traditions. Is the reaction that took place based on validity or dislike for societal differences? “It is also worth noting this study was broadly informed by critical race theory (CRT), which positions ‘race’ at the focal point of analysis, with a particular interest on how race is a historical social construction creating privileges for some racial groups (i.e. whites), and disadvantage for other racial groups (i.e. people of color) in American society.
1) Racism is pervasive in America, deeply ingrained in the very fabric of society and its many social institutions.
2) Places great value on the experiential knowledge and perspectives of racial minorities and other subordinated groups in American society.” (Agyemang, Singer, & DeLorme)
It is not always easy to accept things that are different. This is true with societal, cultural, and religious differences as well. Knowing that the fight is based on the women who are still being exploited in severe gender discrimination create validity.
The argument that women cannot participate in sports while maintaining modesty has no relevance either. Nine Muslim women participated in the 2012 London Olympics. Nine Muslim women won medals. They were able to compete, win, and represent the world’s Islamic spectrum. They respected their faith and their culture by participating in their norms of dress. This included the hijab and full garb. The Olympic committee compromised by allowing Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani to wear this attire while competing in Judo. “Nine Muslim women contestants won medals in the London Olympics. They represented the world’s Islamic spectrum. Their faith dictated their norms of dress, including the hijab which the Olympic committee compromised on for Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani from Saudi Arabia who competed in Judo.” (Taplin-Chinoy)
Women’s participation in sports does not have to be at the expense of cultural practices or beliefs. The path has been paved to show that participation in athletics does not make these women unfit to marry. It also has been done respecting and representing the Islamic culture. The Holy Quran commands the people to be not only spiritually fit, but healthy as well. The arguments that are being made have no validity and there has been an adequate amount of research to contradict every concern that has been presented. For these women it is a shot at a healthier and happier life.
Al-Nafjan, Eman. “Saudi Women In Olympics: Kingdom ‘Gets the Bug’.” Mid East Post.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.
Dorsey, James M. “Saudi Arabia – Human Rights Watch Condemns Saudi Restriction of Women’s Sports.” Global Defense.net. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.
Taplin-Chinoy, Shahnaz. “Is Islam Compatible With Women’s Sports, Fitness and Health?” Huff Post Religion. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
God. “Al-Hij.” Holy Quran. Trans. Rashad Khalifa. Rev. III ed. Fremont: Universal Unity, 2001. 22 Oct. 2012
Pearlman, Alex. “Saudi Women Head to London, but Clerics still Oppose Sports for Girls.” Global Post. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.
Khan, Mohammad Younis; Dr Asif Jamil; Dr Umar Ali Khan; Uzma Kareem; & Ghazanfar Imran. “Female Students Opinion about Women’s Participation in Sports. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences September 2012, Vol. 2, No. 9. Print.
Al-Malki JS; MH Al-Jaser; & AS Warsy. “Overweight and Obesity in Saudi Females of Childbearing Age.” International Journal of Obesity (2003) 27, 134–139. Print.
Pfister, Gertrud. “More and More Muslim Women are Taking up Sports, and Tehran is Setting an Example.” SangSaeng Summer 2006. Print.
Agyemang, Kwame; John N. Singer; & Joshua DeLorme. “An Exploratory Study of Black Male College Athletes’ Perceptions on Race and Athlete Activism.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 2010 45: 419. Print.
Shihab-Eldin, Ahmed. ” Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Paradox: Insulting Women, Islam and ‘Prostitutes’.” Huff Post World. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.