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Saudi Spring? Not so fast

The equestrian world is buzzing with the news that Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympic athlete spoke at the IOC World Conference on Women and Sport in LA ten days ago. The FEI issued a press release on the remarkable impact made by 20 year old Dalma Rushdi Malhas  when she spoke about being the first Saudi woman to compete at an Olympic event. The story is so inspiring that evenWorldDressageNews.com (which, contrary to its ambitious name, goes dormant for months at a time and creeps back to life by publishing press releases that are just copies of other organizations’ releases – usually with a gap of a couple of days), saw fit to send out a special news bulletin (by recycling the FEI press release) . Why all the hoopla? Well Miss Malhas is a show jumper, and she wrote herself into the history books when she won individual bronze at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. First Saudi woman, and a medalist no less. Is this a good news story? Absolutely. Malhas will surely be an inspiration to aspiring female athletes from repressed nations around the world. But let’s not go overboard. Saudi Arabia has not yet crawled into the 19th Century when it comes to women’s rights. They have an awfully, awfully long way to go.

Outside the equestrian world, Malhas has been in the mainstream news as well, but with less  of a shiny-new-penny gloss to the story. “Saudi Arabia to send token woman to Olympics to evade sanctions”, reads the headline on one of dozens of recent newspaper stories that paint a less rosy picture.  It turns out Saudi Arabia is in a rather ignoble category as an Olympic nation. It is one of three countries, along with Brunei and Qatar, that have never sent female athletes to the Olympics. The IOC has threatened to ban Saudi Arabia from the London Games if it doesn’t send a female athlete. Malhas is far and away the strongest candidate to represent a nation that bans sports and physical education to girls . Why is that, you ask? Because some dusty old clerics have declared (without burdening themselves with scientific evidence) that sports could damage girls’ precious little hymens, which would render them unmarriageable.  And of course there is that pesky little issue of modest dress.  The advantage that Malhas has, in addition to her undeniable talent as a rider, is that she chose to excel in a sport whose attire leaves only her hands and face uncovered. If she had chosen diving or gymnastics, I don’t doubt for a moment that she would have been rejected as the poster child for Saudi Arabia’s emancipation of female athletes. The Saudis have also added another little caveat to their tiny, leafless olive branch: the only female athletes they will endorse are those who pursue their sports while living outside the Kingdom.

Let’s do a little reality-check on how liberated the Saudis really are. File the following under ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’.  Women are not allowed to mingle with men in Saudi-land. In 2010, the Saudi King issued a fatwa (in English-speak that’s  a decree) that women who work in mixed-sex work places should breast feed all their male co-workers to establish a ‘symbolic maternal relationship’ with them, thereby making their co-mingling acceptable. I have to give props to the Saudi women for finding a way to turn an obscene suggestion around and use it against their oppressors. An LA Times blog from a couple of weeks after the fatwa was issued had the following headline: “Saudi Arabia: Women threaten to breastfeed drivers if they aren’t allowed to drive.” Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. They aren’t even allowed to leave their homes without a chaperone, who must be both male and related to them.  So they said, “fine. If we aren’t allowed to drive, that means our drivers are men. And unless we are related to them, it is forbidden for us to be in their company. Therefore we will breastfeed our drivers.” It should be mentioned that a large number of domestic staff in Saudi Arabia, including drivers, are not Saudi natives. I don’t know if any Saudi women breastfed their Indonesian drivers, but I think the bigger point is that this one little story (don’t even get me started on stoning)  illustrates a harsh truth: that as deserving as a young woman show jumper is of pursuing her career, she isn’t going to be doing it with the heartfelt support of her native land. She isn’t trailblazing. She’s walking on the moon.

For her own part, Malhas has expressed her intention to take her riding as far as she can. That podium moment in Singapore gave her a taste of what any aspiring young athlete would seek to taste again. As she strives for personal achievement, Malhas will surely become a role model, as well as living proof that it takes more than an oppressive regime to keep a good woman down. But let’s give all the credit to her, okay? Let’s not be singing the praises of the progressive Saudis, because until women there have even a fraction of the rights that we North American women take for granted,  they are nowhere near deserving of any woman’s stamp of approval.