25 Jun 2012

Female Saudi athletes allowed to compete at Olympics

12:58 pm on 25 June 2012

Saudi Arabia is to allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time.

The decision will end recent speculation as to whether the entire Saudi team could have been disqualified on grounds of gender discrimination.

Public participation of women in sport is fiercely opposed by many Saudi religious conservatives.

There is almost no public tradition of women participating in sport in the kingdom.

Saudi officials say their only female competitor at Olympic standard will be showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas.

But they added that there may be scope for others to compete and that if successful, they would be dressed "to preserve their dignity".

In practice this is likely to mean modest, loose-fitting garments and "a sports hijab", a scarf covering the hair but not the face.

The BBC reports the decision is a huge step for the kingdom. Officials say a consensus was reached 10 days ago amid intense discussions between the king, the crown prince, the foreign minister, the grand mufti and others, to overturn the ban.

An announcement was ready to be made but then had to be delayed due to the sudden death of Crown Prince Nayef.

Previous decisions

King Abdullah has also allowed the participation of women in the Shura council.

The BBC reports this is not the first time a Saudi monarch has backed a controversial reform against domestic opposition.

King Faisal, who introduced television in the 1960s and was eventually assassinated, insisted on introducing education for girls.

Saudi women graduates now outnumber their male counterparts.