Saudi Arabia, where sports events for women are banned, is considering sending a female athlete for the first time ever to the Olympics this year, following criticism from abroad.
The issue of women in sport remains extremely sensitive in the ultra-conservative Muslim state, where women are not even allowed to drive cars and the authorities shut down private gyms for females in 2009 and 2010.
On Saturday, Al-Sharq newspaper said that equestrian jumping contestant Dalma Malhas, 18, is likely to be Saudi Arabia’s only female athlete at this summer’s Olympics in London.
Malhas won a bronze medal at the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics without having been nominated by her country, following an invitation from the International Olympic Committee (OIC).
Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, also the powerful interior minister known for his opposition to women being given the right to drive, has given the nod to sending the her to the Games, according to local media.
But the decision has yet to be officially declared.
The Saudi Olympic body has so far said that only men will take part in the London Olympics.
In July last year, the president of the IOC’s Women and Sport Committee, Anita DeFrantz, criticised Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar and Brunei for being the last three countries to have never sent female athletes to the Olympics.
Last month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report that damned the systematic exclusion of women from sporting activities in Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, which is bidding for the right to host the 2020 Olympics, has already announced its firm intention to send female competitors to London.
On Friday, HRW welcomed reports that Saudi Arabia might be represented by women at the Olympics, but said the “positive step” was not enough.
It said Saudi Arabia was still in violation of the Olympic Charter “due to its systemic violations of the right for women to participate meaningfully in sport in the kingdom,” calling on the IOC to use its leverage to “help affect lasting change for Saudi women.”
“Sending women to the London Olympics does not change the fact on the ground in Saudi Arabia that girls and women are effectively excluded from taking part in sport,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director.
“This is no moment for the IOC to celebrate, when girls remain barred from physical education in Saudi government schools as a matter of policy,” she said.
If Malhas is chosen for the Saudi team for the Olympics, the move could provoke resistance in her homeland.
It could also be deemed in violation of the country’s strict Islamic code under which women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe.
Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi Olympic Committee, said at the end of 2011 that Saudi Arabia would field only male athletes in London, while women can take part if they receive direct invitations.
“Talks about Saudi Arabia sending a women’s team to the London Olympics have been repeated many times over the past 20 years. Saudi Arabia will participate with a male team, and there is no intention to send a female team because there are no women sports in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The prince pointed out that there were many Saudi female students abroad who play sports and contacted the committee expressing their wish to participate, but there is no female delegation to accommodate them.
“If they receive invitations, we will discuss that, especially (to ensure) they wear right outfits and that the competitions are suitable for women.”
But it is still unclear if the Saudi Olympic Committee will select Malhas.
Meanwhile, women wanting to take part in sports in the Gulf kingdom face an uphill struggle as they have to do so behind closed doors, like a group of 300 women who played basketball at an enclosed court in the city of Jeddah on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8.