Why No Saudi Women Qualify for the Olympic Games

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The Saudi Arabian woman most likely to compete in this summer's Olympic Games, 20-year-old show jumper Dalma Malhas, does not qualify.

The news broke on Sunday that Saudi Arabia would allow women to compete in the Olympics for the first time. However, the only woman deemed likely to compete under the Saudi flag in London this summer, Dalma Malhas, was ruled out on Monday when the World Equestrian Federation, or FEI, said Malhas' horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month’s work during the qualifying period, according to the FEI website.

Malhas was the first Saudi Arabian female to win a bronze medal at the junior Olympics in Singapore in 2010, but she did not receive official support or recognition. In fact, according The Chronicle Connection, Malhas was invited by the International Olympic Committee, known as the IOC, to join the junior Olympics so that Saudi Arabia would meet the one-female quota necessary to qualify. 

In a column in The GuardianNabila Ramdani makes the case that Saudi Arabia only lifted the woman-ban to prevent disqualification by the IOC on the grounds of gender discrimination, and used Malhas as a deceptive symbol of progress. 

As dictatorial regimes toppled from Cairo to Tunis, the surviving ones have tried to present a slick PR sheen, hiding their oppression with a sense of glowing achievement.

Malhas fits the bill perfectly – not, unfortunately, because she is representative of downtrodden Saudi women, but because she is an American-born, London-educated multi-millionaire's daughter who conforms to the glamorous, internationalist image her massively wealthy country strives to portray abroad. The blond, blue-eyed sportswoman touched on the deceit herself when, interviewed during the youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010, she admitted: "I didn't care much about me being there as a representative of Saudi Arabia, because anyone could probably do that."

There are countless roadblocks that prevent Saudi Women from qualifying for the Olympics.

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According to Reuters:

Top Saudi clerics, who hold government positions and have always constituted an important support base for the ruling al-Saud royal family, have spoken against female participation in sports.

In 2009 a senior cleric said girls risked losing their virginity by tearing their hymen if they took part in energetic sport.

Physical education is banned in girls' state schools in the kingdom...

The in-depth cover story on Malhas in The Chronicle Connection highlighted the toll this has taken on the health of Saudi Arabian women. 

[T]here are an abundance of conservative congregants who argue that being active in public would require women to change into workout clothing, and disrobing outside the home is considered to be against good moral code. As a result, more than 63 percent of Saudi women are plagued with obesity, according to a 2007 study titled "World's Fattest Countries," executed by Forbes

By contrast: In America, home of "Taco Bell on the inside, Doritos on the outside," but also home to Hollywood and 24-hour fitness centers, 34 percent of women are obese, only slightly more than half the rate in Saudi Arabia. 

It seems safe to say that several steps -- removing of the ban on physical education for girls in Saudi Arabian state schools, re-opening the women's gyms that the Saudi Regime closed, for starters -- must be taken before we have the female Saudi Olympian we hoped to have in Malhas. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.