Last week, Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to participate in the Olympics, generating discussions around the world of the Kingdom’s progressive strides. Shahrkhani’s journey has been far from painless, forced to jump through administrative hoops while facing criticism from both her own country and those in the West. Despite the judoka’s swift defeat in the ring, her participation in the Olympic Games truly marked a win for the empowerment of Saudi women. But the question still remains: Where does this leave the average Saudi woman?
Since the Kingdom announced that it would be sending women to the Olympics, there have been countless news articles emitting unconditional praise for the Kingdom’s historic decision, which has strengthened my national pride but has left me wondering about the future of Saudi women. Don’t get me wrong — I am truly proud of the participation of both Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar in the Games (watch Attar live on August 8 in the women’s 800 meter run!), but it is crucial that we have productive discussions not only about increasing the number of female participants in sports but also about addressing the reality of the situation.
Sarah Attar was born and raised in California and was fortunate to develop her running ability through the US educational system. Wojdan Sharkhani has only been practicing judo for the past two years in her family’s home under the instructions of her father. Jasmine Al-Khaldi, a Filipino athlete born to a Saudi father, holds national swimming records in her native country, and Dalma Malhas, the American-born Saudi Arabian junior Olympian who took home the bronze medal in Singapore in 2010, trained in Italy and France.
Neither of the Saudi women participating in the Olympics was trained in a Saudi Arabian association, sports club or academic institution. In reality, there is no place in the Kingdom that allows Saudi female athletes to engage in sports in a non-stigmatizing environment. The few centers that do exist are limited and only allow sports to be played at the amateur level. Our society and culture, regrettably, does not permit girls to play sports or take physical education classes in school. Only girls in private schools can engage in sports, leaving the majority of girls in public educational institutions with few, if any, options.
Let me spare you the common outbursts on the driving ban imposed on women in the Kingdom or the issue of travel permits, because this gender inequality is solvable through practical means. It is clear that Saudi women can not only reach international sports competitions, but can also thrive if given the proper moral and financial support to develop their skills.
Saudi Arabia has the economic means and social leverage to invest in its own people. And thus, the Kingdom should begin taking the necessary steps to enhance the athletic experience for Saudi women by creating innovative accessible venues for them, as well as by introducing a viable sports curriculum in the nation’s schools. This is critical for establishing a vibrant female athletic community in the Kingdom.
This season, the Kingdom made Olympics history. As a Saudi, I am proud. However, as a pragmatist, I try not to kid myself. This summer’s events should provide us with more than just a glimmer of hope; it should be a driving force to enhance social awareness of the importance of providing Saudi women with a chance to participate in sports.
The writer is a management consultant based between Dubai and the Kingdom.