The approaching one-year anniversary of the London Olympics is a reminder that change is possible, even in countries that have long resisted it. Last July in London, Saudi women took part in the Olympic Games for the first time. Their breakthrough threw a spotlight on the barriers for women trying to play sports inside the kingdom and on the harmful social, educational and health effects of denying sports to half the country’s population.
Wujdan Shahrkhani competed in judo at the 2012 games and Sarah Attar in track and field. The International Olympic Committee hailed the change, with president Jacques Rogge calling it “a major boost for gender equality.”
But the two Saudi women had only had weeks to prepare and hardly competed on a level playing field. The Saudi National Olympic Committee ordered them to dress modestly, have their male guardians’ approval, and not mix with men. The two women were quickly eliminated from competition, but entered the history books.
This month, there was another possible breakthrough in the kingdom’s effective ban on sports for women and girls. The official Saudi Press Agency announced that students enrolled in private girls’ schools could take part in sports so long as they wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the Education Ministry’s strict regulations.