Someone like myself -- born in America and separated from Arab and Muslim culture for most of my life -- cannot understand a true insider's perspective as to why a few countries in the Middle East want to restrict women from sporting events like the Olympics. In my Gulf Arab family, the idea was the opposite. Instead of being restricted from sports, I have been chased into athleticism my whole life due to ongoing weight problems.
However, a recent article by the New York Times says that at least three Gulf countries (primarily Saudi Arabia) have an issue that extends far beyond the Olympics. Countries like Saudi Arabia are reportedly restricting women from any kind of exercising outside of their home. If these allegations are correct, I find them absurd considering that Saudi Arabia's obesity rate is almost the same as America's.
The lack of exercise in Saudi is severe
How bad is the anti-athletic attitude of Saudi Arabia toward their female citizens? It is so severe that Human Rights Watch's Christopher Wilcke told the New York Times that his group wants the Saudi Arabia International Olympics Committee to, "promote change at the Olympics but to promote better conditions for all female athletes in Saudi Arabia."
Wilcke continues to explain that the best way to complete this task is, "to pressure the Saudi Olympic Committee to form a women's section, to provide financing for women's sports and to start a campaign to encourage Saudi women to compete in sports... [create] a timeline and strategy for establishing physical education programs for girls in public schools."
Reading this was shocking to me. Was it possible that Saudi Arabia had no gyms, sports clubs, or physical activity classes for girls in public schools?
The rest of the Persian Gulf is changing
Like my Persian Gulf counterparts, I have struggled with obesity my whole life. However, compared to the U.S. statistics of 36 percent, women in the Persian Gulf are reported to have a rate of 70 percent obesity. Obviously, women need athleticism in that area of the world as much as Americans do -- if not more.
Interestingly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council Women's Games and showed an effort is being made to change obesity and the lack of athletic Persian Gulf women. About the issue they stated, "Organizers also said the competition showed that most Persian Gulf governments - Saudi Arabia didn't send a team - now are promoting women's sports, both to overcome the perception they are sexist and to combat health problems such as diabetes and obesity."
Will Saudi Arabia ever change?
Personally, I can understand how Saudi Arabia is in a difficult position since this country is the historic center of Islam. Regardless of the fact that the Kingdom has delayed making decisions about women in the past in order to consult Muslim clerics, there have been some changes. For example, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for office in the 2015 elections. There was also a report in May from the U.K. Daily Mail that, "Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has now become the first state-run girls school openly to encourage sports."
The same article stated that two other changes have happened in the past months. One is organizing a "ministerial committee to consider allowing women's sports clubs." This is great news since, as GulfNews.com reports, Saudi Arabia shut down private women's gyms in 2009 and 2010.
Finally, Noura al-Fayez ( Saudi Arabia's only female deputy minister) wrote to the Human Rights Watch to tell the world that, "there is a plan to introduce physical education at girls' state schools."
In addition to these events, Saudi Arabia also allowed equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games (although she did not qualify ). For the 2012 London Olympics, the disqualification of Malhas has led the Saudi Olympic Committee to say they have, "a number of other female athletes from Saudi Arabia in other sports who are currently under consideration," to replace Malhas.
Muslim women are going for the gold
While Saudi Arabia has historically languished in making decisions related to sports and women, there is encouragement from organizations like the is the Muslim Women's Sports Foundation. Along those lines, the International Women's Islamic Games has seen a surge since its inception in 1993.
In other words, there are plenty of promises from Saudi Arabia and a thriving population of Muslim women participating in sports to help Saudi figure out things on their own terms. Let's hope that this is the beginning of big changes for women athletes in this country and that the 2016 Olympics has more female representation from Saudi Arabia.
My personal hope is that a woman wins the Kingdom their first Olympic gold medal.
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