- (Photo: London2012.com)
Although the international community has maintained cautious optimism that 2012 would be the first year every participating country in the Olympic Games would be sending female athletes to compete, the oil-rich Middle Eastern monarchy of Saudi Arabia has yet to confirm if it would be sending any female participants to London this summer.
According to a recent article by Human Rights Watch, the International Olympic Committee has been pressing Saudi Arabia to include women in the global sporting competition, and back in March signs of progress seemed to be made. However, the country has still yet to confirm if women will be participating in the games and recent comments by the country's Olympic Committee president indicate that the likelihood of females participating in the games is slim.
Saudi's Crown Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz reportedly said in March that he approved of women competing so long as they "meet the standards of women's decency and don't contradict Islamic laws," according to the U.K.-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.
During the same month the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee presented the International Olympic Committee with a list of female athletes that could potentially participate in the games. Following the meeting the IOC released a statement saying that it was "confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic games in London in accordance with the International Federations' rules."
However, by April the Saudi Olympic Committee President, who also serves as the country's Minister of Sports, Prince Nawwaf bin Faisal, said at a news conference that he ultimately did not approve of sending female athletes to the Olympics.
"Female sports activity has not existed (in the kingdom) and there is no move thereto in this regard," Nawwaf said. "At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships."
Following the announcement activists around the world called on the IOC to exclude Saudi Arabia from participating in the games based off the rules laid out in the Olympic Charter.
"Saudi Arabia's current refusal to send sportswomen to the Olympics put them directly at odds with one of the IOC's fundamental principles as laid out within the Olympic Charter," Sue Tibballs of Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation told the BBC news back in April.
"It reads that 'any form of discrimination with regard to a country or person on the grounds of race, religion, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.'"
Discrimination against women and girls has long been a staple of the monarchy – whose legal system is based on an interpretation of Islamic law. Saudi Arabia is the only country that still prohibits women and girls from driving and maintains a male guardianship system which limits a woman's ability to travel, work, or even study without permission from a male guardian.
Earlier this year Human Rights Watch published an extensive report on the discrimination of women and girls in sports highlighting the social, institutional, and legal challenges they face. The virtual ban on females participating in sports is based more on cultural norms than religious interpretation, according to HRW, but the organization is concerned that the 2012 games could come and go without one Saudi Arabian woman on hand to participate in the competition.
"Saudi Arabia is the last holdout denying women and girls the ability to take part in sports," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The clock is running out for Saudi women to join the Games, and for the international community to insist that the Saudi government allow women to participate."