by Patrick Appel
Even as the pressure builds for Saudi Arabia to allow women to participate or risk becoming an outlier even in the Islamic world—Iran and Yemen have women’s soccer teams, for instance—the state has tried to hold the line. Its Olympic athletes have barely been brought up in the state-sanctioned press, and much of the Twitter conversation about them has been hostile.
Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, a devastating report by Human Rights Watch details the profoundly deviant yet tenaciously held religious objections of Saudi clerics to women engaging in sports. Allowing Saudi girls and women to compete would invite them to engage in immodest movement, aberrant clothing, and performances in front of unrelated males that would lead to immorality and desecration of the purity of the Saudi female, influential clerics insist. They argue that vigorous movement is a threat to the health and honor of the "virgin girl," a profound deterrent in a shame-and-honor-centered culture that places extraordinary value on the intact hymen of an unmarried woman.
She goes on:
The Kingdom’s imposed paralysis and concealment of women is an entirely artificial, modern Saudi construct that not only has no basis in Islam but directly contravenes its ideals. The thrill of physical activity, perversely forbidden by the Saudi government, was one Muslim women have long known. There was no immobilization of women in the early Islamic era. The Prophet’s wife was famed (as recorded in the Hadith) for her playful races against her husband the Prophet—who called play and folly with one's spouse integral to a happy and fulfilled Muslim marriage.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s reversal to allow women to compete in the Olympics reveals a fundamental truth: the Kingdom recognizes its restrictions are increasingly difficult to defend on the world stage, or even in the Muslim world.
Earlier commentary along the same lines here.
(Photo: Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani looks on after losing her first round judo match. She was competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 3, 2012 in London. By Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)