DESPITE fielding two women athletes at the last Olympic Games in London, Saudi Arabia has reverted to its sexist policy.
Saudi Arabia has failed to include a single female athlete in its 199-strong team for the upcoming Asian Games in South Korea, saying its women are not sufficiently competitive.
The Saudi stance sparks criticism from Human Rights Watch, which condemns its all-male line-up, saying the ultra-conservative state is shutting the door on female athletes, having previously shown signs of wanting to break down barriers.
Saudi authorities were widely applauded for including two women in their team for the 2012 London Olympics, a symbolic first for the Islamic kingdom. But just over two years later, the oil-rich nation has opted not to pick any females for the 17th Asian Games, to be held in Incheon, South Korea, from Sept 19 to Oct 4.
Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabiaâ€™s Olympic Committee, says that Saudi Arabia is committed to sending female athletes to the next Olympics, but adds they are not yet competitive enough for Asian Games.
â€œTechnically, we werenâ€™t ready to introduce any ladies and the new president of our Olympic committee (Prince Abdullah bin Musaed bin Abdulaziz) rejects the idea of sending women to only participate. He wants them to compete,â€ says Mishal. â€œWe will be having women in Rio de Janeiro on a good scale, but not at the Asian Games.â€
Mishal says Prince Abdullah, who is Saudi Arabiaâ€™s General President of Youth Welfare, has discussed his countryâ€™s plans with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). â€œHe doesnâ€™t like seeing them (female Saudi athletes) being always in the last (place). He wants to do it right and he has already communicated this to (IOC President) Thomas Bach,â€ says Mishal.
â€œWe are obliged for Saudi ladies to participate and we will do our duty in a manner that doesnâ€™t contradict with the major rules of the kingdom,â€ adds Mishal.
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which organises the Asian Games, says that while it fully encourages the participation of women, it does not comment on team selections. â€œOCA clearly wants as much female participation as possible in Asian Games. We try to encourage all countries to send their top female athletes,â€ says OCA secretary general Randhir Singh.
â€œSome of the west Asian countries have started sending (women) and we encourage it,â€ says Singh. â€œThe women athletes of the region have been doing extremely well in Olympic Games and world championships, and their numbers in Asian Games have also gone up.â€
Qatar and Brunei, which also included female athletes at the London Olympics for the first time, have both picked female competitors for the Asian Games. Of the 45 competing countries at the multi-sports event â€“ which sports the slogan â€œDiversity Shines Hereâ€ â€“ only Saudi Arabia has failed to include both genders.
Last month, Saudi Arabia also failed to select a single female athlete for its team at the Youth Olympics in China, even though it has done so four years earlier when Dalma Rushi Malhas won an equestrian bronze medal.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, calls on the IOC to act, saying Saudi females should be able to compete at the Asian Games to help prepare for the Olympics. â€œThe next summer Games are only two years away and it would be a real failure for the IOC and global sport if there is another crisis of womenâ€™s participation,â€ she says. â€œThat is something the IOC can and must act on now.â€
Human Rights Watch has closely monitored the state of womenâ€™s sport in Saudi Arabia and welcomed the introduction of social reforms.
A year ago King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the 150-member Shoura Council. The country also officially lifted a ban on sports in private girlsâ€™ schools, a groundbreaking rule for a state where women are banned from driving and need formal permission from male relatives to leave the country, start a job or open a bank account.
Saudi Arabiaâ€™s appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government on policy, also asks the education ministry to look into including sports for girls in state-run schools with the proviso they should conform to sharia rules on dress and gender segregation.
But the countryâ€™s cautious social reforms to improve womenâ€™s rights have also been met with resistance from religious conservatives, who fear the kingdom is losing its Islamic values in favour of Western ideas.
Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, says progress is being made but is slow. â€œThere are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes.â€
â€œBut more or less, things are moving in the right direction and I think international pressure does have an impact. They are starting to care more about what people think about them but itâ€™s a tight balancing act,â€ adds Coogle.
Under pressure from the international community, Saudi Arabia picked two athletes for the London Olympics â€“ judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and teenage 800m runner Sarah Attar. Neither won a medal but Mishal says Saudi Arabia is planning a bigger female contingent for Rio.
â€œWeâ€™re focusing on equestrian, fencing, shooting and archery â€“ sports that are accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia. Women have been doing these sports even 1,000 years ago,â€ he says. â€œOur ladies will be there, accompanied by their husbands or parents or brothers and this is the way we do it when women travel.â€
Meanwhile, the local organising committee for the Asian Games â€“ a competition held every four years dating back to 1951 â€“ says it is up to each competing team to nominate their competitors. â€œIt is Saudi Arabiaâ€™s decision who they will send and we respect their decision and freedom of choice,â€ says an official, who asks not to be named. â€“ Reuters