Notwithstanding the Olympics' explicit rules against all forms of discrimination, the Saudi government decided to ban its women from participating in the Olympic games that began today in Beijing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules are unequivocally clear: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympics Movement."1 Based on this anti-discrimination rule, it is morally and professionally incumbent on the IOC and all participating teams, especially women who represent democratic societies, to declare their unequivocal support for the inclusion of women on the all-male Saudi team. If this civilized protest fails to convince the Saudi government and society that their marginalization of women is repulsive and will not be tolerated by civilized peoples, the IOC should disqualify Saudi Arabia from participating in future games.
The international community should have the moral courage to declare Saudi monarchy a pariah system not only because of its decision to deny Saudi women the right to participate in the Olympic Games, but because of its discriminatory policies against non-Muslims, Muslim minorities, and those who promote humane and participatory governing institutions in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is among the very few remaining states in the world that ignore and defy international declarations of human rights and the Kingdom gets away with it. It's no secret that Saudi women are among the most oppressed people in the world. Saudi women can not drive legally, are barred from voting, cannot initiate a phone service, buy property, travel or even deliver their babies without male approval. By failing to hold the Saudi government accountable for its obligations as a member of the civilized world, the IOC and the international community are de facto condoning and validating an exclusionary and chauvinistic system that continues to deny its citizens their basic human rights. Furthermore, the Kingdom sets an unspeakable example for other Arabs and Muslims to emulate because other Muslims look to Saudi Arabia for religious guidance. These examples perpetuate discrimination against other Muslim women and non-Muslims who live in Arab and Muslim societies.
As in previous Olympics and other world events, Saudi women will be forced to stay home instead of participating in one of the oldest international sporting events - events designed to bring people together in an environment of strength, pride, professionalism and humanity. The exclusion of Saudi women from the Olympics is not due to their inability or to their lack of yearning to join the thousands of men and women who will compete for excellence in an environment of global harmony. Rather, their exclusion is due to antiquated and discriminatory policies on the part of a reactionary government that oppresses its people and tries to impede their progress into the 21st century.
The United States and other democratic societies will be represented by free and independent thinking men and women who have special moral obligations to break the silence and declare their support for Saudi women. President Bush also is representing the U.S. at the opening ceremonies in Beijing. As the leader of one of the most powerful and democratic societies in the world, Mr. Bush, who considers the Saudis an ally of the U.S., has a special responsibility to denounce the Saudi government's ban on Saudi women's participation in the Olympic Games. Mr. Bush represents the land of the free, which possesses an egalitarian constitution, a Bill of Rights and First Amendment which guarantee citizens and residents of the U.S. their inalienable rights under the rule of law. Mr. Bush has spoken bravely in the past against tyranny with the Saudi autocratic monarchy in mind, and this is the time to reiterate his opposition to tyrannical regimes. "When a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme," he said in 2005. "And to draw attention away from their social and economic failures, dictators place blame on other countries and other races, and stir the hatred that leads to (more) violence. This status quo of despotism and anger cannot be ignored or appeased. The advance of hope in the Middle East also requires new thinking in the capitals of great democracies-- including Washington, D.C."2
It is not only morally wrong to deny the Saudi women their God-given rights as stipulated in international human rights treaties and declarations, but it has negative practical implications for world peace and economic stability. Saudi Arabia plays central economic and religious roles in the lives of Arabs, Muslims and many other peoples' lives and economies. This power is due to Saudi Arabia's possession of one quarter of the world's known oil reserves and to the country's religious significance to the estimated 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.3 Saudi Arabia is known for its religious intolerance, incitement against non-Muslims, support for extremist groups and learning institutions in poor Muslim countries, and the exportation of the austere and deadly Wahhabbi ideology. Excluding Saudi women from full participation in decision-making, especially in matters related to their children's education, leaves extremist men in charge of indoctrinating young Saudi minds to reject, hate, discriminate against and in some cases kill non-Muslims and Muslim minorities because of their alternative beliefs.
Finally, marginalizing and excluding Saudi women from the decision-making process and denying them the right to be full and productive citizens are actions that are not only detrimental to the Saudi society, but also a threat to the U.S. national security. Women in egalitarian and open societies have excelled in all fields. Saudi women will do the same if given their divine and natural rights to explore their potential and use it for the good of their country, especially ensuring a good and safe education for their children. The Saudi educational system is run by religious zealots who decide what should be taught in schools. This situation led a Saudi female professor, Dr. Fawziah Al-Bakr - who earned her education in England - to write a scathing book about Saudi schools, My School Is a Locked Box, and the material children are fed in them. "You send your children to school thinking that they will learn to read or write or to do math or understand science. But do we really know what is going on there, in the box? When our children sit for six hours in school, what are they taught? Only numbers and facts? No, not at all." She went on to say, "I believe that because we were unaware of what was going on in the locked box — at least for the past 20 years — that a number of elements which ultimately led to terrorism crept in."5 Like all educators in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Al-Bakr has no input in, or control over the material she teaches. That is determined by the Saudi religious men whom no one dares challenge or reject their orders.
The U.S. and the international community have much to gain in supporting and empowering women in Saudi Arabia. Demanding their participation in international events like Olympic games sends a message to their autocratic and anti-democratic regime.
Ali Alyami is the Executive Director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. http://www.cdhr.info