In terms of comic value, a Saudi Arabian woman Olympian is in the same athletic under-class as Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel. The very concept is down there with ski-jumpers from Essex and swimmers from Equatorial Guinea, especially when you consider that the Saudi is likely to have to wear a veil, and be accompanied by a chaperone. Novelty-value men have been competing for years, of course, while women from the Gulf Kingdom have been excluded from international sporting competition.
Until now, that is. In a startling development within arguably the most despotic and reviled Arab country in the world, western media such as the BBC reported that a 20-year-old equestrian would compete for Saudia Arabia and light up the London Olympics with her talent, charisma and – most important of all – faith in feminist progress. Not only is Dalma Malhas a fine horsewoman, but she apparently believes in the potential of autocratic Islamic monarchies to adapt and change. Or, as a gushing profile by one journalist put it, Dalma is “now emerging as a torch for women in Saudi Arabia by showing how freedom to perform can allow women to achieve their goals”.
So far, so very Olympic-spirited, but the same glowing write-up later adds: “Though equestrianism means a lot to Saudi Arabian culture and religion, it is not an easy sport for anyone to practise in the Kingdom, especially because sport is not encouraged for women, due to traditional and cultural restrictions.” Such euphemisms fail, unfortunately, to convey the full horror of the female condition in a country defined by ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic orthodoxy and equally patriarchal tribal customs. Saudi women are currently barred from voting or standing for office, are not allowed to expose any part of their body beyond eyes and hands, and have to have a “male guardian” with them at all times. They have separate entrances for public buildings and are not allowed to drive a car. The black humour that underpins state policy was inadvertently summed up in a recent speech by King Abdullah, who said: “I want women to drive when society is ready for it.”
Which perhaps makes it less surprisingly that less than 24 hours after the BBC reported Malhas’s inclusion in the team, the Olympic federation denied that she would compete. In fact her horse has been out of action for weeks. Why then were the Saudi authorities keen to tell the BBC that she would? The answer lies, as with so many developments in the Middle East and North Africa, in last year’s Arab Spring. As dictatorial regimes toppled from Cairo to Tunis, the surviving ones have tried to present a slick PR sheen, hiding their oppression with a sense of glowing achievement.
Malhas fits the bill perfectly – not, unfortunately, because she is representative of downtrodden Saudi women, but because she is an American-born, London-educated multi-millionaire’s daughter who conforms to the glamorous, internationalist image her massively wealthy country strives to portray abroad. The blond, blue-eyed sportswoman touched on the deceit herself when, interviewed during the youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010, she admitted: “I didn’t care much about me being there as a representative of Saudi Arabia, because anyone could probably do that.” Her links with the country were, at best, nominal, with no official sponsorship from Riyadh nor national competitive trials.
It is no coincidence that earlier this year the International Olympic Committee said it was preparing to ban Saudi Arabia from London 2012 altogether unless the country sent women to the Games. Tessa Jowell, Britain’s former Olympics minister, led the outcry in February, saying that the Saudis were “clearly breaking the spirit of the Olympic charter’s pledge to equality”.
In turn, a terse response from the Olympic committee in Saudi Arabia was that it would “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify”. Yet only one woman was identified as likely to qualify in any report so far and that was Malhas.
It is hard to understand how any woman could have qualified, given the range of repressive measures affecting female participation in sport in the Gulf Kingdom, including the fact that physical education is banned in girls’ state schools and a 2009 decision to close all private gyms to women.
A prominent Saudi religious scholar highlighted the still prevalent orthodoxy by saying that “opening sports to women and girls will lead to immorality”. Despite chronic obesity levels and related diseases among Saudi women, a recent human rights report relates a widely held belief in the desert state that “once women start to exercise they will shed modest clothing, spend unnecessary time out of the house, and have increased possibilities of mingling with men”.
The political tokenism prevalent in Saudi Arabia is certainly summed up by the Malhas case. Other gestures include the fact that in three years time women will technically be allowed to vote in local elections for the first time – as long as they get a male guardian’s permission to do so.
As with the minuscule political reforms, letting Malhas compete in London gives the impression that the Saudis have appreciated the spirit of the Arab Spring while in fact not acting upon it. Malhas took bronze in Singapore, and said: “I hope this medal will open the door for many Saudi Arabian women in my country and in the Arab world too. They just need to work hard – if I did it, they could do it too.” When read out loud, the sentiment certainly sounds like the stuff of sporting legend. In reality, however, it is as grimly comical as the heroic failures played out at previous Olympics.