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The London Olympics - Sport for All - and That Includes Saudi Women

Posted: 08/03/2012 04:00

My 17-year-old self is staring at me open mouthed. She is hiding in a disused stable block avoiding double hockey, a game she knows little about and cares for even less. She will famously score nil on the athletics register in the summer of the Upper Sixth by claiming important editorial meetings for an alternative school magazine which will never make it into print.

She'll be dumbfounded that 20-odd years and a serious fitness addiction later, I'm writing about how the world should fight, aggressively (if they need lessons in this, I can recommend Body Combat classes) for women's right to participate in sport.

For every British girl bunking off games today, there is a girl somewhere in the world who is denied the right to exercise. Games lessons and team sports don't exist in her school curriculum and PE knickers have never, not ever, been on the uniform list.

I say 'somewhere in the world' but I mean Saudi Arabia. It's not the only place in the world where girls are denied physical self-determination, but it is the only country coming to the London Olympics this summer without a single female competitor and, while the International Olympic Committee has expressed consternation, no sanctions will be applied. Which is different from the approach they took against the Olympic delegation from oil-free Afghanistan in 2000. (Whoops! Did I imply this is yet another oil dependency issue?) The Afghan contingent was banned from the Sydney Games on the grounds of the treatment of women by the then governing Taliban.

I'll confess I am no lover of some of the cultural practices of Islam. I have yet to be convinced that the enforced covering of women is anything other than a grotesque violation of human rights, an expression of fear of female sexuality and a diabolical sign of patriarchal control. In Saudi Arabia, women are required by law to wear an abaya - a floor length black cloak - when venturing outside. And venturing outside is a feat in itself; International Women's Day 2012 marks the launch of a campaign by Amnesty to support the right of Saudi women to drive themselves - an everyday freedom here but one which attracts punishment by violence in Saudi Arabia. Naturally, I support it and urge you to.

The Saudi authorities have determined that to be born female in that society is to be born to a life under what is, effectively, indefinite house arrest. The right to function as a fully autonomous human being simply does not exist for women. Amnesty's campaign is vital in sending a message to the Saudi government, but, as hosts of the most important international festival of sport, we surely have a responsibility and an opportunity to make a stand of our own and deny the all-male Saudi team an invitation to the party.

In the light of the extraordinary bravery of many Saudi women in challenging the discriminatory practices of their government, I am embarrassed and ashamed that Tessa Jowell, former Culture Secretary and now a member of the Olympic Board, has not taken a stronger position on this outrageous betrayal of members of her own sex. It is not enough to hope that the Saudis will "set out a clear plan for equal inclusion of women in time for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro." Without international pressure and an unambivalent stance, that simply isn't going to happen.

I'm writing this on the eve of International Women's Day. In 20 minutes' time, I shall jump into my car and drive myself, at speed, to my local authority-run leisure centre where I shall endure (I want to say 'enjoy' but it's still not quite the right word) an hour's weight training and a dance class. My classmates and I will get hot and sweaty, we'll laugh and swear our way through the classes, boobs bouncing and faces crimson, and we'll have a great time.

My 17-year-old self could not appreciate the importance of physical exercise; she could not understand the benefit of a constant, healthy weight, a body that works efficiently, is strong and reliable, and she'd roll her eyes if I mentioned the benefits from the natural anti-depressant effects of regular training and the concomitant rise in self esteem. My 17-year-old self didn't know much about the significance of bone density, the threats posed by obesity or how great a matter of pride well-defined triceps might turn out to be.

These are the pleasures, the life enhancers and the freedoms British women take for granted. How I wish my Saudi sisters were free to share in them; it'd be great if they could do it in lycra, but I'm not after a miracle.The Olympics are about discovering what's possible for human beings. Sport for Saudi women is surely a possibility. Ms Jowell, you have a choice to make for women who have none.

 

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