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Let them Play: Saudi Women and Sports

Photo: The female basketball team of Jeddah United warm up in Jordan on April 21, 2009. Jeddah United is the only private sports company with women’s teams. © 2009 Reuters

Did you know that Saudi Arabia has never fielded a woman in its Olympic team, and effectively imposes a ban on women playing sports?

In Saudi Arabia, the government enforces a “male guardianship system” that treats women as minors in all aspects of life. Women must obtain permission from a guardian (a father, husband or even a son) to work, study, marry or access health care. The Saudi government prohibits physical education for girls in state schools and denies licenses for women’s gyms.

Two of Human Rights Watch’s experts, Minky Worden and Christoph Wilcke, will be in Los Angeles February 13th-16th 2012 to release the report “Saudi Arabia: Women Barred from Sports”. Minky is the Director of Global Initiatives, and Christoph is the Senior Researcher for the Middle East and North Africa Division. The report’s focus on sports and exercise is part of a larger effort to advance women’s autonomy in Saudi Arabia.

The week of the report release, the International Olympic Committee’s Conference on Women in Sport is also taking place in Los Angeles, and Human Rights Watch’s hopes to enlist the Olympic Movement to help bring change within the kingdom in the area of sports.

Seeing how much my little sister enjoys playing soccer, I cannot imagine what it would be like if she were denied the right to practice sports. I cannot imagine what it would be like if she had to meet her friends in secrecy at local gym just to kick a ball around. This is what girls and women face in Saudi Arabia.

All countries that participate in the Olympics should be promoting both men and women’s sports. As stated in the Olympic Charter, “the practice of sport is a human right.” There cannot be successful Olympics where human rights abuses take place, or where women cannot participate—so let them play.

Photo: The female basketball team of Jeddah United warm up in Jordan on April 21, 2009. Jeddah United is the only private sports company with women’s teams. © 2009 Reuters

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