ShareThis Page

Saudi Arabia not bragging about 2 female Olympians; silence hints move more show than substance, unlikely to help women athle...

| Friday, July 13, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

CAIRO — Across the world, word that Saudi Arabia would send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time rocketed to the top of websites and broadcasts. In Saudi Arabia's official media: not even a hint.

The state-sponsored silent treatment was a lesson in the deep intricacies and sensitivities inside the kingdom as it took another measured step away from its ultra-conservative traditions.

While Saudi leaders found room to accommodate the demands of the International Olympic Committee to include female athletes, they clearly acknowledged that — in their view at least — this did not merit billing as a pivotal moment in a nation that bans women from driving or traveling without the approval of a male guardian.

“It does not change the fact that Saudi women are not free to move and to choose,” said political analyst Mona Abass in neighboring Bahrain. “The Saudis may use it to boost their image, but it changes little.”

The two athletes selected to compete under the Saudi flag — 800-meter runner Sarah Attar from Pepperdine University in California and judo competitor Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani — live outside the kingdom and carry almost no influence there as sports figures.

Ahmed al-Marzooqi, editor of a website that aims to cover women's and men's sporting events in Saudi Arabia, viewed the announcement on Thursday as mostly an attempt to quiet international pressure on the lone nation trying to stick with an all-male Olympic team.

The other former holdouts — Brunei and Qatar — have added female Olympic athletes, with Qatar planning to have a woman carry its flag in London.

“We are still disappointed here,” al-Marzooqi said from the Saudi city of Jiddah. “I should be happy for them, but this will do nothing for women who want to be in sports in Saudi Arabia.”

Still, the Saudi move is not without significance.

The decision must have received at least some nod from the nation's Islamic religious establishment, which holds de facto veto power over nearly all key moves by the Western-allied monarchy and gives the royal court its legitimacy to rule over a nation with Islam's holiest sites.

The inherent two-way tug — change-resistant clerics and leaders sensing reform pressures from the streets — has allowed enough slack for some slow-paced movement.

Saudi women activists have gotten behind the wheel to oppose the driving ban, and bloggers churn out manifestos about how the Arab Spring will one day hit Saudi shores.

“If Saudi does field women athletes, it is immensely interesting,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This flies against the traditions of having a woman not make a public display of herself or mixing with men. Now, the world could see women marching with men in the opening ceremony and — even more — women running in competition.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.