Saudi Arabia has announced that it will allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time, following more than a year of Human Rights Watch reporting, campaigning, and high-level advocacy with the International Olympic Committee.
Failure to allow women to play sports violates the Olympic Charter, which prohibits gender discrimination, and would have triggered Saudi Arabia's banning from the London Games.
The Saudi concession that "qualified" women could compete comes only weeks before the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Games.
"This is an important step forward, but it also fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives.
While calling the Saudi announcement an important advance for women, Human Rights Watch cautioned that gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. "Alone in the world, millions of girls are still banned from playing sports in Saudi's schools," Worden said. Women are also prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.
These obstacles to sport are underpinned by the government's so-called "guardianship" system, under which women must obtain permission from a male guardian (a father, husband, or even a son) to work, study, marry or access health care. Saudi women are banned even from driving a car.
Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia should demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the Olympic Charter not just by sending a team of female athletes to the London Olympics, but by adopting new policies that will create real, systemic change to benefit all Saudi women and girls.
With the Saudi Olympic reversal as momentum, Human Rights Watch will continue to push Saudi Arabia to allow women to play sports and participate in public life.