In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where girls are not offered physical education in state schools and women are essentially barred from participating in most competitive sports, external pressure has prompted the monarchy to allow women to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time.
The Saudi embassy in London released a statement Sunday, confirming that the Middle Eastern country would allow women athletes who can qualify for the Games to participate in the 2012 London Olympics.
The decision came as rights organizations called on the International Olympic Committee to pressure Saudi Arabia to shift its policy on participation of women athletes in adherence to the Olympic Charter, which states:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy governed by male members of the royal family in accordance with Sharia law, is one of three countries -- with two other conservative Islamic nations, Qatar and Brunei -- to never have fielded women athletes in the Olympics.
While the decision is viewed as a moderate sign of social progress, the fact remains that the Saudi government does not provide any infrastructure for women to train and participate in sports that would enable them to compete at the Olympic level.
Sending women to the London Olympics does not change the fact on the ground in Saudi Arabia that girls and women are effectively excluded from taking part in sport, Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement.
This is no moment for the IOC to celebrate, when girls remain barred from physical education in Saudi government schools as a matter of policy.
At present, there are very few Saudi women athletes that could qualify for the Olympics. There are no national teams for women in any of the competitions, leaving only a select few who have trained individually.
Equestrian show jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas had been invited by the IOC to participate in the London Olympics as a representative for Saudi Arabia, fulfilling the new requirement for every participating country to send at least one female athlete. However, she failed to qualify after her horse was sidelined by an injury.
Malhas, 20, a Saudi citizen of Palestinian descent, born in the U.S. and privately educated in Europe, had previously represented Saudi Arabia in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, winning a bronze medal -- a first on all counts for the kingdom.
In contrast with most other female Saudi athletes, Malhas does not compete in conservative Islamic dress, though she is the exception to the rule and any other Saudi woman participating in the Olympics would have to compete wearing a headscarf and clothing that covered her arms and legs.
Human Rights Watch is not opposed to the requirement.
Many Muslim women compete at high levels wearing conservative dress, and headscarves are banned in only a few sports, like football (soccer), when played according to international sporting guidelines, HRW said in a statement.
So far no other Saudi women have qualified for next month's Olympics, though judo and track and field are considered sports where female athletes could potentially compete.
The movement toward ending discrimination against women and girls in Saudi Arabia is like a relay race, and participation of female Saudi athletes in the Olympics would amount to winning the first leg of the race, Whitson said.
For this race to be a true victory, the Saudi government needs to make genuine and immediate strides toward ending discrimination against women in sport.