Saudi Arabia will break down a door of social restriction to include a woman athlete on in its Olympic team in London this summer, a statement from the watchdog agency Human Rights Watch says.
Also expected to send women for the first time are Brunei and Qatar. With Saudi Arabia, they are three conservative governments which have not fielded female athletes in past Olympics, and religious reasons are often cited for women's exclusion from high-level sport. About 204 countries are to march in the Olympic opening ceremonies.
Prospective female athletes from these countries may not have reached Olympic qualifying standards in some events, but IOC president Jacques Rogge said options could be found by international sports governing bodies to get them into the Games.
HRW called it "a positive step toward ending the country's pervasive discrimination against women in sport." But the group says it will keep up pressure on Saudi Arabia – where the legal system is based on Islamic law and women are subject to guardianship rules. The group said the middle east kingdom remains "in violation of the Olympic Charter" for other restrictions on would-be sportswomen. The rights body called on the IOC to "use its leverage to help affect lasting change for Saudi women."
"Sending women to the London Olympics does not change the fact on the ground in Saudi Arabia that girls and women are effectively excluded from taking part in sport," said Sarah Leah Whitson, middle east director at Human Rights Watch. "This is no moment for the IOC to celebrate."
Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz approved the participation of female athletes in London as long as they "meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws," reported London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat.
The IOC indicated on Monday that it held a "constructive" meeting in Lausanne with the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee," A list of potential female athletes for the Games was presented. The list will be studied by the IOC and International Sports Federations to assess the level of each athlete.
Equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, 20-year-old show jumping bronze medalist at the Youth Olympics — and the daughter of an accomplished female show jump rider Arwa Mutabagani — is one Saudi possibility, but selectors would need to finds a way to add her. Equestrian events are open to both males and females and a Saudi team has qualified for London, but she would have to take the place of a male rider from the qualifying squad.
(Although Saudi Arabia sent an official delegation of male athletes to Singapore for the Youth Olympics, The New York Times reported Malhas had to enter on her own, at her own expense.) On the conservative side, her riding gear leaves only the hands and face exposed. The possibility to include women officials in the Saudi Arabian delegation is also open.
A Saudi woman – a female sports commentator – will be one of the London Olympic Games's 8,000 torch bearers. Reema Abdullah said this week she was notified by Games officials that she would be one of the torch bearers.
As recently as then 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, there were 26 nations who did not have women on the athletic rosters. While some progress has been made on the women's side, the gender battle is not won, HRW said in a statement. The IOC needs to put Saudi Arabia's lack of compliance with the IOC Charter's ban on gender discrimination on the agenda at its executive board meeting on May 23 in Quebec, the statement said.
Saudi women under male guardianship, require permission from family members to marry, get a job or an education, or open a bank account. Women can be segregated from men in all public places, schools, and universities.