As Rio 2016 Draws Closer, When Will Discrimination End For Sportswomen In Saudi Arabia?

As Rio 2016 Draws Closer, When Will Discrimination End For Sportswomen In Saudi Arabia?

Lacking the motivation to partake in an active lifestyle?

Spare a thought, then, for women in Saudi Arabia who are actively discouraged - and even trolled - for taking part in sport.

In fact, "women are being killed by their government" - or so suggest the authors of Killing Them Softly, a report focusing on how the Saudi government's policies, when it comes to women's sports, is harming their health.

But there are those who aren't willing to let culture and government policies get in the way of their dreams.

Namely Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani - two women who bravely competed in the 2012 Olympic Games, becoming the first Saudi Arabian sportswomen to do so.

Runner Sarah Attar

Wojdan Shaherkani, Judo athlete

Attar, whose mother is American and father is Saudi, wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the sporting event as a way of inspiring women.

Back in 2012, she told the press: "This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing women. I know that this can make a huge difference."

Despite finishing last in the 800m race, Attar - who was covered head to toe due to strict rules in place from Saudi's Olympic committee - received a standing ovation for her efforts.

And although Shaherkani lost to Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica in women's judo, it did not matter, as she became Saudi Arabia's first ever female Olympic athlete.

Of course, when you go against the ideologies that dictate the lives of so many women in your home country, you'll inevitably pay a price in doing so.

Shaherkani was branded by Twitter users back home as “The Prostitute of the Olympics”, while Saudi Arabian press failed to even report on either of the female athletes’ performances.

Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal made his opinion on the matter very clear: “Female sports activity has not existed (in the kingdom) and there is no move thereto in this regard.”

But why?

According to the authors of Killing Them Softly, Ossob Mohamud and Ali Al-Ahmed, the Saudi government fully embraces traditional religious theology. This sadly places a whole host of limitations on women including banning them from driving and making it very difficult for them to engage in any form of physical activity.

The latter of which is also incredibly damaging for their health.

According to an independent study published for the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, 34% of women are obese in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government spends roughly £3 billion each year treating illnesses related to obesity.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division for Human Rights Watch, offers HuffPost UK Lifestyle an insight into what is - and isn't - acceptable when it comes to women's sport in Saudi Arabia.

"There is no ban on women going to the gym in Saudi or playing sport per se," she says. "Rather, sex segregation means that most private gyms - there are no public ones, really, outside of schools - are limited to men only, and that in order for women to have access to gyms, they need women-only facilities, of which there are few."

She adds that the government doesn't offer physical education (PE) classes at schools, which means that girls do not have access to physical fitness.

"In addition, because of the restrictions on women’s attire and movement, it is not an option for them to exercise in public."

Point blank: it's primitive. As a result, women are often driven to participate in underground sports leagues in order to keep fit and maintain an active lifestyle.

One woman, named Dima, even told Human Rights Watch of how she used to go to the local oil company compound to practice sports, as it was the only opportunity she had.

But, despite all of this, things might finally be looking up for the female population of Saudi.

A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee told HuffPost UK Lifestyle that they are now working with the International Federations to achieve 50% female participation in the Olympic Games as well as to "stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities".

"We believe that Wojdan Shaherkhani and her compatriot Sarah Attar's participation in London was a great achievement and sent a strong message to all the girls in the country who will be inspired by these athletes’ performance even if they did not win medals," added a spokesperson for the IOC.

"We also see that this was the starting point for a wider participation of girls and women in sport in the country."

Sarah Leah Whitson echoes that things could be starting to take a turn for the better, as Saudi women who have access to private girls' schools can participate in sports there.

There are also a handful of new gyms being built especially for women.

Sarah Attar is now training hard with hopes of representing Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

She told Women's eNews: "I cannot see them not sending women next time. And if I could run in Rio, I think it would be awesome."

Here's hoping she's right.

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