Judo competitor Wujdan Shahrkhani and track and field athlete Sarah Attar are the first ever female members of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team, and that their participation prompted many to hail Saudi Arabia’s “progress” in women’s rights. However, some women have taken issue with this depiction of events. Journalist Nabila Ramdani said on Twitter, “Sarah #Attar featuring in #Olympics is pure PR sheen to give impression #Saudi's advancing women condition abroad while situ worsens at home.” Unfortunately, she's right. The participation of two Saudi women in the Olympics is not a sign of increasing rights in that country, but it does open the door to progress for women athletes.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not let that girls participate in sports in government schools. Women’s athletic clubs and facilities are also banned, which effectively bans women from practicing any sport. It’s worth noting that Sarah Attar practiced in San Diego rather than Saudi Arabia. Finally, a few weeks before the Olympics, the Saudi sports ministry would not give permission for women to hold an amateur sports tournament to celebrate Ramadan, and the ministry gave no reason for the refusal.
It seems likely that the inclusion of women on the Olympic team was a gesture designed to pacify critics at home and improve the country the image abroad. This is a strategy of the Saudi government has used recently. For example, in 2011, King Abdullah promised that women would be able to vote in the 2015 municipal elections in a move that was celebrated as a great step for human rights by a reformer king. However, women will only be allowed to vote with the permission of the male guardian, so the reform is not liberal as it was portrayed. Similarly, since 2008, the government has promised several times to relax the ban on female drivers, but it is still detaining and prosecuting women who drive in 2012. Saudi Arabia has gotten considerable credit in the Western press for allowing women on its Olympic team, and probably hopes that this will stop the international community from looking too closely at the country’s women's rights record for a while.
Despite the government’s cynical motives, Shahrkhani and Attar’s achievement has provided an opportunity for their country’s female athletes. After they included two women on the team with such fanfare, the Saudi Olympic Committee will find it difficult to say no to future female Olympic candidates. Also, a few of the many articles written about these women have drawn attention to the plight of other female athletes in that country and the stringent restrictions placed on them, even in comparison to the situation in other conservative Muslim countries. This may lead to international pressure for sports programs for girls’ in schools. Perhaps most importantly, the idea of women athletes representing Saudi Arabia at the Olympics is no longer inconceivable. Maybe someday it will be so normal it won’t cause headlines.