International human rights group Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.
The Human Rights Watch charges contained in a new report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ comes on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.
The report urged the International Olympic Committee to require Saudi Arabia to legalize women's sports as a condition for its participation in Olympic games.
"The glaring absence of a Saudi female athlete at the Olympics cannot go on much longer," Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke, the report's principle author, said in a presentation of the report. ''We have listened to Saudi promises for decades. This is not good enough."
IOC spokesman Mark Adams in an emailed response to the call said that persuasion had proven to be "more effective. We've already seen them send a woman athlete to the Youth Olympic games so we are confident that we will make progress.”
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.
Qatar, the only other country whose indigenous population are largely Wahhabis, adherents of the puritan interpretation of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia, has agreed to field a women's team in London has increased the pressure on the kingdom to follow suit.
Saudi women despite official discouragement have in recent years increasingly been pushing the .envelope at times with the support of more liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family, The kingdom's toothless Shura or Advisory Council has issued regulations for women's sports clubs, but conservative religious forces often have the final say in whether they are implemented or not.
In a sign that efforts to allow and encourage women's sports are at best haphazard and supported only by more liberal elements in the government, the kingdom last year hired a consultant to develop its first national sports plan - for men only. There is no legal ban in on women’s sports in Saudi Arabia where the barriers for women are rooted in tradition and the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islamic law.
"Nobody is saying completely 'no' to us," Associated Press quoted Reem Abdullah, the 33-year old founder, coach and striker of private women’s soccer team Jeddah King's United who is a leader in the campaign to allow women to participate in sports and compete internationally as saying. “As long as there are no men around and our clothes are properly Islamic, there should be no problem," she said.
The pushing of the envelope comes as women are increasingly challenging other aspects of the kingdom's gender apartheid against the backdrop of simmering discontent in Saudi society over a host of issues.
Manal al-Sharif was detained in May of last year for nine days after she videotaped herself flouting the ban on women driving by getting behind a steering wheel and driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising that she would stop agitating for women's rights.
A group of women launched earlier this year a legal challenge to the ban asserting that it had no base in Islamic law.
For his part, Saudi King Abdullah has made moves to enhance women’s rights. Last September, women were granted the right to vote, stand for election in local elections and join the advisory Shura council.
Women responded to the closing of private gyms for women in 2009 with a protest campaign under the slogan 'Let her get fat.' The government has since allowed the re-opening of health clubs for women but these are often too expensive for many women and don't offer a full range of sports activities.
Opposition to women's sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes in international competitions only to men.
The issue of women's sport has at time sparked sharp debate with conservative clerics condemning it as corrupting and satanic and charging that it spreads decadence. Conservative clerics have warned that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.
One group of religious scholars argued that swimming, soccer and basketball were too likely to reveal “private parts,” which includes large areas of the body. Another religious scholar said it could lead to “mingling with men.”
To be fair, less conservative clerics have come out in favor of women's sports as well as less restrictions on women. In addition, the newly appointed head of the kingdom's religious vigilantes is reported to favor relaxation of the ban on the mixing of the sexes.
In defiance of the obstacles to their right to engage in sports, women have in recent years quietly been establishing soccer and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base.
The clerics "say it’s too masculine or too aggressive or not really feminine,” Lina Almaeena, a Saudi woman who plays on a private basketball team called Jeddah United told the Los Angeles Times.
"We will watch the London Olympics and we will cheer for our men competing there, hoping that someday we can root for our women as well," Ms. Abdullah said. “When Saudi women get a chance to compete for their country, they will raise the flag so high. Women can achieve a lot, because we are very talented and we are crazy about sports."
Ms. Abdullah established King’s United as the kingdom’s first female soccer team in 2006. Her example has since been followed in other cities, including Riyadh and Dammam. Two years later seven female teams played in the first ever national tournament as part a clandestine and segregated women's league.
Mr. Wilcke said that despite the apparent lack of real political will to encourage women's sports it “is very achievable. Government clerics are saying, ‘We should do this.’ Even if they take small steps, that still has the potential to alter lives of women who get out of the house, meet other women -- every bit helps.”
Mr. Wilcke said attitudes were likely to change because of the kingdom's young population which is likely to favour more liberal approaches.
Expectations that 18-year old equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics, the sports event IOC spokesman Adams was referring to, would be the first Saudi athlete to compete at an Olympic games were dashed recently when the all-men Saudi team recently qualified for this year's London Olympics jumping competition.