The 2012 Summer Olympics have been unofficially dubbed the Year of the Woman
since for the first time ever, every country taking part – even Saudi Arabia,
Brunei and Qatar – has fielded a female athlete.
Yet human rights and
women’s groups said many hurdles still remain, and called on the International
Olympic Committee on Thursday to work harder to end discrimination against
women’s sports in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In an open letter to
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, Australian- born
British human rights activist Peter Tatchell slammed the Olympic movement for
tolerating Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s discriminatory treatment of
“Saudi Arabia’s government blocks women from participating
in sport. Many private women’s gyms have been closed down and girls are banned
from taking part in sport at school,” Tatchell wrote, noting that neither of the
two Saudi women athletes at the Olympics – Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah
Attar in track and field – live or train in Saudi Arabia.
come after Rogge hailed as a “major boost for gender equality” decisions by
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei to send female athletes to the games for the
This week, the committee also confirmed that it would allow
Saudi judoka Shahrkhani to compete wearing a hijab, after her father told the
country’s Al- Watan newspaper that she would quit if she had to
US-based group Human Rights Watch has also voiced criticisms
about Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s sports.
In a recent report, HRW
criticized the Saudi Sports Ministry for banning a women’s Ramadan sports
tournament featuring volleyball, soccer and basketball, even though the
organizers promised to comply with Shari’a law, including obtaining permission
from the women’s male “guardians.”
Saudi’s religious leaders have
frequently expressed opposition to women’s participation in sport. Grand Mufti
Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah Aal as-Shaikh told the country’s Saudi’s al- Iqtisadeh
TV channel recently that women had no need to play sports, and that their role
was to be housewives.
The negative attitude toward Saudi women in sports
spilled over onto social media this week, after Saudi Twitter user Sultan
al-Halali began a campaign against Olympians Shahrkhani and Attar by using the
site to encourage others to criticize the women, by posting tweets with an
Arabic hashtag (keyword) that translates as “Olympic whores.”
negative campaign caused a backlash, with many using the hashtag to post
supportive comments. On Thursday, London-based Saudi Twitter user Hayathem
al-Hasher slammed the “whores” campaign as defamatory.
In the light of
the difficulties that Saudi’s women athletes must overcome to play sport, it is
unsurprising that even HRW has admitted that the 2012 Summer Games is a positive
first step for Saudi women.
In many ways, the London Olympics also
represent a great leap forward for Iranian sportswomen.
This year, the
Islamic Republic fielded eight women, the largest number of female athletes ever
to represent Iran in the Olympics.
Even though Iran has competed in every
Olympics since 1948 (except the 1980 and 1984 games), it was not until 1996 that
an Iranian woman – rifle shooter Lara Fariman – qualified to
Competing this year are shot putter Leyla Rajabi, rower
Soulmaz Abbasiazad, shooters Mahlagha Jam-Bozorg and Elaheh Ahmadi (whose father
was also a shooter), archer Zahra Dehghanabanavi, Taekwondo martial artist
Sousan Hajipourgoli, table tennis player Neda Shahsavari and canoe sprinter
Arezou Hakimi Moghaddam.
Abbasiazad reached the semifinals of the Women’s
Single Sculls, but was knocked out on Thursday, placing sixth in her
All eight of Iran’s female Olympians qualified for the games, even
though the regime has stepped up its efforts to make it harder for women to
participate in sport since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in
The many restrictions placed on Iranian women include a ban on male
coaches and trainers, and access to only very limited training
As Maryam, a women’s soccer referee from Iran, told BBC
Persian in a recent interview: “One of the problems in Iran is that male coaches
cannot attend women’s exercises. In every other country and in all the games,
there are men coaches...
but unfortunately we don’t get that in
Like Saudi women, Iranian women must also play sport wearing
Islamic dress, including a hijab, a dress code that resulted in the Iranian
women’s soccer team being banned from Olympic participation.
women even face difficulties in watching sports, as they are prohibited from
entering stadiums where there are men present.
Smallmedia, a UK-based
nonprofit that examines culture, censorship and technology in Iran, and which
has profiled the eight Iranian women athletes, noted that Olympic Taekwondo
participant Hajipour – who told the group that she wants to be the first Iranian
woman to win an Olympic medal – has trained in South Korea and that table tennis
player Shahsavari trained with Hungarians in Tehran.
On a positive note,
Shahsavari said that because of her success in the sport, Iran’s Table Tennis
Federation has started to give more attention to female players, Smallmedia
As Shahsavari’s enthusiasm – and that of her fellow Olympians –
indicates, despite the difficulties they face, Iranian women are determined to
play and compete in a wide variety of sports, including soccer, polo and even
rugby, which is a controversial sport even for women in the West.
2011 documentary by Iranian-New Zealand filmmaker Faramarz Beheshti, Salam
Rugby, which explores the difficulties faced by Iran’s female rugby players, one
woman describes the government’s efforts to thwart the sport as “mental
Significantly, it has been Iranian women themselves who have
fought for greater sporting inclusion.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution,
women’s sport was completely shut down until 1990, when Faezeh
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, daughter of then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
and the “Spiritual Mother” of Iranian female athletes, campaigned to bring it
It was Hashemi-Rafsanjani, in her former role as vice president of
Iran’s Olympic Committee, who later successfully campaigned for Iranian and
other Muslim women to compete in the Games wearing Islamic dress.
of the Iranian women competing at the Olympics have also spoken of their
determination to succeed at their sport.
In an interview with the Aftab
news website, rifle shooter Jambozorg said that while she always emphasized hard
work, competing in the Olympics had been a dream for her.
“Now that dream
has come true,” she said.
And while Jambozorg admitted that Iran has not
experienced great Olympic success, and that the country wanted to do better in
future, she felt that competing was the most important thing.
I’ll be satisfied by giving my best performance,” she said.