From Saudis to Soccer, Women Make Strides at Summer Olympics, But Are They Pawns of Backward IOC?

Democracy Now*

Sarah Attar

HAVANA TIMES — One of the many records broken during the 2012 Olympic Summer Games was the number of female athletes participating from the conservative Islamic nations of Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia only allowed women to compete after the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, threatened to bar the whole team unless women were included. The controversy over the Saudi athletes is just one of the many ways in which women athletes and gender issues have come into focus during this year’s Olympics.

We’re joined by two guests: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, University of Toronto professor emeritus and author of “Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda” and the forthcoming book, “Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry”; and Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch and author of “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” Worden campaigned for Saudi Women to be able to participate in the Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, where athletes from across the world are wrapping up the final days of competition at Olympic Park in East London. One of the many records broken during the 2012 Summer Games is the number of female athletes participating from conservative Islamic nations of Qatar, Brunei, Saudi Arabia.

During the opening ceremony, the three Saudi women who participated walked behind the men, not among them. While most runners make history for winning, Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia made history for just entering the race. The stadium erupted in cheers when she completed the 800 meter heat on Wednesday, even though she finished dead last. Shortly afterwards, Sarah Attar explained with the Olympics meant for her and other Saudi women.

SARAH ATTAR: I think it really shows that there is progress on its way. And that we were allowed to compete, it shows that more steps are going to come and that this is just an amazing thing. And for women in Saudi Arabia I think it can be inspiring to not give up on your dreams, because it can and will come true.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Attar, who has dual U.S.-Saudi citizenship, was the second Saudi woman to compete in the games following Wodjan Shaherkani, who almost didn’t get to compete until judo authorities conceded to her wearing a headscarf. Saudi Arabia only allowed the women to compete after the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, threatened to bar the whole team unless women were included.

On Sunday, human rights activists called on Olympic organizers to ban countries that discriminate against athletes due to their gender or sexual orientation. Protesting in front of one of the IOC’s official hotel in London, the activists said the Committee is failing to uphold the Olympic Charter’s mandate that all competing nations refrain from discriminating on grounds of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell explained his opposition to including Saudi Arabia in the summer games.

PETER TATCHELL: Saudi women athletes are required to be accompanied at all times by male guardians. In Iran, sport is segregated on the basis of gender, and women are required to dress head to toe to cover their bodies. In more than 150 countries, it would be impossible for an openly gay athlete to be selected for their Olympic squad because of the prevailing prejudice. For all of these reasons, we believe the International Olympic Committee should enforce the Olympic Charter and ban countries that perpetrate discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: The controversy over the Saudi athletes is just one of many ways in which women athletes and gender issues have come into focus during this year’s Olympics. About 45% of the 10,500 athletes competing are women, and for the first time in history, each of the participating country’s teams include women. Also for the first time, the U.S. Olympic team is comprised of more female athletes than male. And Megan Rapinoe, a star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won last night, publicly announced she was a lesbian. The Website estimates almost two dozen Olympians are openly gay.

While the Games provided a giant leap for some women, many hurdles remain. Both badminton and boxing considered mandating women to wear skirts, but backed off in the face of widespread criticism. Experts have criticized the International Olympic Committee’s method for determining who can compete as a woman because it involves invasive sex testing procedures that they say is based more on social standards than science.

Well, for more on the gender issues of the 2012 Summer Olympic, we’re joined by two guests from Toronto. We’re joined by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj. She’s the author of several books on the Olympics including, “Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda,” and the forthcoming “Gender Politics in the Olympic Industry.” She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. We’re joined here in New York by Minky Worden. She’s the Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. She campaigned for Saudi Women to be able to participate in the Olympics. She is author of, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” Helen and Minky, welcome to Democracy Now! Minky, let’s start with you. Talk about the Saudi women athletes.

MINKY WORDEN: Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani really are trailblazers in many respects. This is the first time in Olympic history that women have been allowed to march behind the Saudi flag, although as you correctly point out, they were far behind the men. But, as much as we cheer these athletes for breaking barriers in Saudi Arabia, I think for Saudi women, I think we always have to remember the millions of women back in Saudi Arabia who cannot participate meaningfully in sport. Just for example, Saudi Arabia is really an outlier in the world. It’s the only place where little girls are banned from taking physical education in schools. It is the only place where the 153 sports federations, not a single one, has a women’s section.

Saudi women are also alone in the world—not allowed to compete in international sports competitions. So not even the Islamic games, the Women’s Islamic games, which was hosted in Tehran. So, I think, the situation for Saudi women—Saudi Arabia is truly an outlier in banning women from sport. And the momentum that we have from forcing, really, Saudi Arabia to admit women and to allow them to compete this year, has to be immediately followed up on by pressure on the Saudi Ministry of Education to allow women to play sports in the country and girls to play sports in schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Lenskyj, your response?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: I have very little faith in the symbolic value of women from these countries making an appearance in the Olympics. I think, at worst, they’re simply used as token by the sport administration and the political regimes in this country, and at best, they might be an inspiration to some girls and women.

But again, I have limited faith in the idea of role models because, sure, you can have your so-called Olympic dream, but what good does it do if when you face a school that does not have adequate facilities for phys ed and sport? Or you live in a community that has very rundown, inadequate supporting facilities— recreational sport facilities. Your so-called dream is not going to materialize. I think it is an outright lie to tell girls that it will.

AMY GOODMAN: While many human rights supporters have hailed the decision to allow Saudi women to compete wearing the hijab, a Muslim head scarf, some campaigners protested late last month saying allowing women to wear the hijab at the Olympic events is a violation of the Olympic Charter that demands neutrality in religion.

PROTESTER: I think it is really important that the stance be taken here in the West because I think in terms of multiculturalism, tolerance has been hijacked, so to speak, by patriarchs who wish to use it against them. I would say that things like when we struggled against apartheid, antislavery, all those other things—cultural relativism did not come in the way, rather it helped. Nobody could say, oh, it is in their culture to be apartheid. That is not OK. Similarly, how can you be OK to say, it is in their culture to oppress their women, or it’s in their culture to treat their women as if their children for the rest of their lives, which is the case in some countries. This is not a statement against a religion or a culture—it is a statement against oppression of women.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the protesters outside the International Olympic Committee headquarters. Minky Worden?

MINKY WORDEN: Human Rights Watch it takes the position we should not tell women to—we shouldn’t force women to wear head scarves and we shouldn’t force women who want to wear them to take them off. If you insist that women who are devout and wish to wear head scarves take them off, then you might exclude them from sports activities where they wish to play and clearly, Wodjan Shaherkani, was able to compete without injury in the judo competition and an accommodation was made for her to wear a head covering, and that enabled her to take part in the Olympics. I think it is a better thing that women should be allowed to take part than be excluded on the basis of a head coverage.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the backlash at home in Saudi Arabia? A Twitter campaign to get people to call the women athletes prostitutes?

MINKY WORDEN: There was a really pernicious Twitter campaign that was called, “Prostitutes of the Olympics” almost as soon as the two women who were competing for Saudia Arabia were announced. Interestingly, that was hijacked by supporters of Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani to give support for them, but clearly, one of the—just to return to the basics in Saudi Arabia, the real problem here is legal gender segregation and the fact Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most abysmal women’s rights records. So the true problem is the legal system and the government policy to create an environment where women do not have basic rights and freedoms, and you see that in a climate that is created where threats and intimidation against women are acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, do you think Saudi Arabia should have been banned?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: I do not have any faith in these issues being resolved at the level of world sport. I think they are, as your other guest has pointed out, there are way bigger issues than that. The IOC is a massive hypocrisy. It is an amoral, self-elected group of men and women, mostly men, who basically do not care about these human rights issues or their history of the last 20, 30, 40 years would have been dramatically been different to what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: They started with the 1936, what is now being called the Nazi Games, where the IOC was quite willing to turn a blind eye to the beginnings of Nazism in order to have the Games in Berlin. The Games must go on—that is the moral of their approach to the sport. There have been countless examples since, where the basic human rights have been violated in host countries, and not just Beijing—every host country, because of the IOC’s requirement that protest be banned in or near Olympic venues. Host countries use that requirement to extend the ban on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to huge areas and regions of their host city so that—and we see this in London. We saw the critical mass cyclists getting kettled and harassed and treated inhumanely and their basic human rights violated on a large scale, a couple of weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: There was a lot of attention now on the first Saudi athletes, one of them fighting judo. What about another judo Olympian—USA’s first Olympic gold medal in judo went to Kayla Harrison. I want to go to a clip of her describing what keeps her motivated:

KAYLA HARRISON: The feeling of accomplishment after you do something like that with your body, after you lift whatever amount of weight over your head and then squat it 50 times or whatever ridiculous thing—it is awesome. Really what keeps me going back is that the sense of accomplishment, but also I know without a doubt when I step on a mat, there is not anybody in better shape than me. There is not going to be anybody that has worked harder than me. It is a really good confidence booster.

AMY GOODMAN: Kayla Harrison is not only an Olympic champion, but also a survivor of a sexual abuse. Her former coach, Daniel Doyle, reportedly abused her during competition trips to other countries. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to one count of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign land. He was banned for life by USA Judo by that admission. The significance of her coming out, of Kayla coming out, Helen, at the Olympics?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: That was dramatic. Sexual harassment, sexual abuse on the part of coaches directed at young female athletes and young male athletes is rampant. It is a secret that is definitely kept under wraps across the world. So for her to make that public statement and for the world to know that was her background and that justice, in a sense, has been done, that really was very triumphant, a triumph for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Now the U.S. women’s soccer team has got a lot of attention. They won last night against Japan. I wanted to turn to soccer star Megan Rapinoe who recently went public about being a lesbian. She said was more difficult for male athletes than for women to be open about their sexuality.

MEGAN RAPPINOE: I don’t look into it too much. I think that can be a bit dangerous, but everything I’ve seen thus far has been extremely positive. I think people were wanting this and really welcome it. I think there’s a lot of gay women in sports. It is widely known within the teams if you live an open lifestyle without being open in the media. But I think for men, unfortunately, it is not the same climate in the locker room.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Helen?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: She is right that it is more difficult for men and even some of the top football players who have come out after their careers have been over have admitted they would have been frightened to come out for fear of violence from their peers on the team. As for women, certainly, the climate, the acceptance has increased since I started researching these kinds of issues about 25 years ago. But I wouldn’t say it is smooth sailing for all lesbians in sport, and certainly, there have been a lot of athletes who see quite rightly the need to stay in the closet.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also ask about Gabby Douglas, the remarkable 16-old Olympic gymnast from the United States, first African-American gymnast and first woman of color in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. However, a lot of the media coverage of Douglas seems to focus less on her athletic abilities, and more on, of all things, on her hair. Fox Sports spoke about the controversy to the 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, who is also African American.

DOMINIQUE DAWES: Our self-esteem many times is wrapped up in our hair. I know a lot of African-American women, including myself, when my hair was relaxed, I did not like working out. When I was training for those three Olympic Games, I was constantly sweating. My hair was relaxed so it would be dry and brittle because of the relaxer. I did not want to get into pools because the chlorine mixed with the chemically treated hair, does not make it look so good whatsoever. And that’s people have been attacking little Gabby Douglas about. And it’s sad that it’s not on her achievement and her performance and it’s more on the appearance of her hair. But I must say this—if she focused on her hair, she would not have made history.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, who is also African American. Minky Worden, as we wrap up?

MINKY WORDEN: It is tragic that the focus is on their hair and not on their amazing performances. Just to return to what you opened with, with the Olympic charter—it clearly bans discrimination against women on the basis of race and I would like to say that as far as Saudi women are concerned, there are women inside Saudi Arabia who are fighting very hard for the right to go to play basketball, to go to a soccer pitch. They’re wearing men’s cleats, they’re training far outside the city. They’re taking great risks to play sports. When we cheer Olympians in London, let’s just remember all of the people who do not have the privileges and ability to play sports, and let’s do our best to change the government policy that is currently still banning women from sports in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch and Helen Jefferson Lenskyj. We thank you both for being with us.

(*) See this program on Democracy Now.