This year marks the first year that all of the more than 200 countries represented at the Olympics have a female athlete as part of their delegation. Specifically, this year, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei all included women in the London Games.
Saudi Arabia sent two judo athletes (who may be forced to compete without her headscarf - I’m thinking this is a move away from recent positive developments accommodating the wearing of religious clothing and thus improving the inclusion of all women in sport, although safety is a concern. But I digress.) and an 800 meter runner.
Brunei sent one 400m hurdler.
Qatar sent three women; a swimmer, sprinter and a flag bearer.
(As an aside, Palestine has been allowed to send athletes under it’s flag since 1996 even though it is an unrecognized state by the UN. They sent their first female athlete in 2000, and send another this year.)
In comparison, the US delegation has more women than men competing, ranking in at 269 women and 261 men. But let’s not compare! After all, the US has Title IX that just turned 40, and that changed the fate and futures of many a female athlete on American soil.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t quite have that.
Nevertheless, it is important to note this turn of events, because it means so much for women in sports and the empowerment of girls and women in these nations. Some will say that the Olympics Committee invited these female athletes to make up for gender gaps in sports in these countries, some people will say that they haven’t had resources, training, or opportunities worthy of getting them to the Olympic stage. Still others will claim that this dilutes the importance and worth of the Olympic standard.
To get to gender equality, you have to go through gender equity. Think of the latter as a band-aid, like scholarships to make up for inequalities, affirmative action in the US and South Africa, gender quotas to fill parliaments with women. Do these actions necessarily target the social inequalities and root of discrimination against women? No. But they are a beginning.
This is much the same for the female representation at the Olympics – and, I would say, is even more important given the global scale of the event and the enormous precedent of having women from these three nations compete in sports. Should you need a reminder, women aren’t allowed to participate in sports in Saudi Arabia, and neither physical education nor sport are taught for girls in school. Conservative Muslim clerics oppose a woman playing sports, saying it is immodest and against their nature – (and before you pass judgement on realities you, as a Western non-Muslim may not understand, let me tell you that this sounds a lot like what my ex used to tell me and what I’ve heard from many a man right around Toronto, Belgium and New York.) And yes, I know, one of the Saudi competitors, Sarah Attar, was born in California and (luckily and rightly) profited from Title IX to become a competitor in her field.
So a cumulative total of 6 women who cannot even compete in their own countries is not enough, you will cry. We should challenge the discrimination, the gender disparities, the structural inequalities present in preventing women from participating in sport! I’m right behind you on that one.
But imagine for a moment the enormity of the moment those women walked into the stadium in London at the Opening Ceremonies. Imagine the joy, the pride, the glory. Imagine the cheers. Imagine the countries at home, watching, beaming with pride (this is a great time to forget about the haters). Imagine girls all around the world who are watching, wearing the hijab, seeing these women that look like them, possibly from their neighborhood, their communities, their countries, imagine watching and seeing them ascend to that level, to that Olympic stage. That is one measure of very very intense empowerment. The importance of strong female role models that girls can identify with is a very important part of a woman’s development.
Empowerment is important for girls in a world that is set on dis-empowering the female mind from the moment she exits the womb. In a media awash in gender discrimination, messages of seemingly acceptable gender violence and stereotypes, girls lose motivation to accomplish great things, focusing instead on the roles they must embody, happily and uncertainly trapping themselves inside the body’s gilded cage. When girls and women lack access to power, lack resources and opportunities, lack the control of their selves and their lives and, perhaps most importantly, lack the acknowledgement of their power, they become shells of potential, and their enabled inaction is a disservice to all levels of development everywhere.
Alice Walker said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” When social structures are constantly telling girls and women they don’t have power, its hard for them to believe otherwise.
So while the representation of women from all countries may be a small step, it is an important one, one that is entrenched in traditional Olympic principles, and one that serves to inform and empower – a right step on the way to equality.
Image Credit The Other 98%.