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From Saudis to Soccer, Women Make Strides at Summer Olympics, But Are They Pawns of Backward IOC?

StoryAugust 10, 2012
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One of the many records broken during the 2012 Olympic Summer Games was the number of female athletes participating from the conservative Islamic nations of Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia only allowed the women to compete after the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, threatened to bar the whole team unless women were included. The controversy over the Saudi athletes is just one of the many ways in which women athletes and gender issues have come into focus during this year’s Olympics. We’re joined by two guests: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, University of Toronto professor emeritus and author of “Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda” and the forthcoming book, “Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry,” and Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch and author of “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” Worden campaigned for Saudi Women to be able to participate in the Olympics. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, where athletes from across the world are wrapping up final days of competition at Olympic Park in East London. One of the many records broken during the 2012 Summer Games was the number of female athletes participating from conservative Islamic nations of Qatar, Brunei, Saudi Arabia. During the opening ceremony, the three Saudi women who participated walked behind the men, not among them. While most runners make history for winning, Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia made history for just entering the race. The stadium erupted in cheers when she completed the 800-meter heat on Wednesday, even though she finished dead last. Shortly afterwards, Attar explained what the Olympics meant for her and other Saudi women.

SARAH ATTAR: I think it really shows that there’s progress on its way. And that we were allowed to compete, it shows that more steps are going to come and that this was just an amazing thing. And for women in Saudi Arabia, I think it can be inspiring, you know, to not give up on your dreams, because it can and will come true.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Attar, who has dual U.S.-Saudi citizenship, was the second Saudi woman to compete in the Games, following Wodjan Shaherkani, who almost didn’t get to compete until judo authorities conceded to her wearing a headscarf. Saudi Arabia only allowed the women to compete after the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, threatened to bar the whole team unless women were included.

On Sunday, human rights activists called on Olympic organizers to ban countries that discriminate against athletes due to their gender or sexual orientation. Protesting in front of the IOC’s official hotel in London, the activists said the committee is failing to uphold the Olympic Charter’s mandate that all competing nations refrain from discriminating on grounds of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell explained his opposition to including Saudi Arabia in the Summer Games.

PETER TATCHELL: Saudi women athletes are required to be accompanied at all times by male guardians. In Iran, sport is segregated on the basis of gender, and women are required to dress head to toe to cover their bodies. In more than 150 countries, it would be impossible for an openly gay athlete to be selected for their Olympic squad because of the prevailing prejudice. For all these reasons, we believe the International Olympic Committee should enforce the Olympic Charter and ban countries that perpetrate discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: The controversy over the Saudi athletes is just one of many in which women athletes and gender issues have come into focus during this year’s Olympics. About 45 percent of the 10,500 athletes competing are women. And for the first time in history, each of the participating countries’ teams include women. Also for the first time, the U.S. Olympic team is comprised of more female athletes than male. And Megan Rapinoe, a star of the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won last night, publicly announced she was a lesbian. The website estimates almost two dozen Olympians are openly gay.

While the Games provided a giant leap for some women, many hurdles remain. Both badminton and boxing considered mandating women to wear skirts, but backed off in the face of widespread criticism. Experts have criticized the International Olympic Committee’s method for determining who can compete as a woman, because it involves invasive sex testing procedures that they say is based more on social standards than science.

Well, for more on the gender issues of the 2012 Summer Olympics, we’re joined by two guests. From Toronto, we’re joined by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj. She’s the author of several books on the Olympics, including Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda and the forthcoming Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry. She’s a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. And we’re joined here in New York by Minky Worden. She’s director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. She campaigned for Saudi women to be able to participate in the Olympics. She is author of The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.

Helen and Minky, welcome to Democracy Now! Minky, let’s start with you. Talk about the Saudi women athletes.

MINKY WORDEN: Well, Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani really are trailblazers in many respects. This is the first time in Olympic history that women have been allowed to march behind the Saudi flag, although, as you correctly point out, they were far behind the men. But, you know, as much as we cheer these athletes for breaking barriers in Saudi Arabia, I think—for Saudi women, I think we always have to remember the millions of women back in Saudi Arabia who cannot participate meaningfully in sport. And just for example, Saudi Arabia is really an outlier in the world. It’s the only place where little girls are banned from taking physical education in schools. It’s the only place where, the 153 sports federations, not a single one has a women’s section. And Saudi women are also alone in the world, not allowed to compete in international sports competitions. So not even the Islamic Games, the Women’s Islamic Games, which was hosted in Tehran. So, I think the situation for Saudi women—Saudi Arabia is truly an outlier in banning women from sport. And the momentum that we have from the forcing, really, Saudi Arabia to admit women and to allow them to compete this year has to be immediately followed up on by pressure on the Saudi Ministry of Education to allow women to play sports in the country and girls to play sports in school.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Lenskyj, your response?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: I have very little faith in the symbolic value of women from these countries making an appearance in the Olympics. I think, at worst, they’re simply used as token by the sport administration and the political regimes in these countries, and, at best, they might be an inspiration to some girls and women. But, again, I have limited faith in the idea of role models, because, sure, you can have your so-called Olympic dream, but what good does it do you if when you face a school that doesn’t have adequate facilities for phys-ed and sport, or you live in a community that has very rundown, inadequate supporting facilities, recreational sport facilities, your so-called dream isn’t going to materialize? And I think it’s an outright lie to tell girls that it will.

AMY GOODMAN: While many human rights supporters have hailed the decision to allow Saudi women to compete wearing the hijab, a Muslim headscarf, some campaigners protested late last month saying that allowing women to wear the hijab at the Olympic events is a violation of the Olympic Charter that demands neutrality in religion.

PROTESTER: I think it’s really important that the stance be taken here in the West, because I think the terms of multiculturalism, tolerance have been hijacked, so to speak, by patriarchs who wish to use them against women. I mean, I would say that things like when we struggled against apartheid, slavery, all of those other things, cultural relativism was not—did not come in the way. Rather, it helped. Nobody could say that, “Oh, it’s in their culture to be apartheid.” You know, that’s not OK. Similarly, how can you be OK to say it’s in their culture to oppress their women, or it’s in their culture to treat their women as if they’re children for the rest of their lives, which is the case in some countries. And this is not a statement against a religion or a culture; it is a statement against oppression of women.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the protesters outside the International Olympic Committee headquarters. Minky Worden?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, Human Rights Watch takes the position that we shouldn’t tell women to—we shouldn’t force women to wear headscarves, and we shouldn’t force women who want to wear them to take them off. And that’s a—you know, if you insist that women who are devout and wish to wear headscarves take them off, then you might exclude them from sports activities where they wish to play. And clearly, Wodjan Shaherkani was able to compete without injury in the judo competition. An accommodation was made for her to wear a head covering, and that enabled her to take part in the Olympics. And I think it’s a better thing that women should be allowed to take part than be excluded on the basis of head covering.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the backlash at home in Saudi Arabia, a Twitter campaign to get people to call the women athletes prostitutes?

MINKY WORDEN: There was a really pernicious Twitter campaign that was called “Prostitutes of the Olympics,” almost as soon as the two women who were competing for Saudia Arabia were announced. Interestingly, that was hijacked by supporters of Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani to give support for them. But clearly, one of the—just to return to the basics in Saudi Arabia, the real problem here is legal gender segregation and the fact that Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most abysmal women’s rights records. So the true—the true problem is the legal system and the government policy to create an environment where women don’t have basic rights and freedoms. And you see that, again, in a climate that is created where threats and intimidation against women are acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, do you think Saudi Arabia should have been banned? Helen?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: I don’t have any faith in these issues being resolved at the level of world sport. I think they are—and as your other guest has pointed out, they are way bigger issues than that. The IOC is a massive hypocrisy. It is an amoral, self-elected group of men and women, mostly men, who basically do not care about these human rights issues, or their history of the last 20, 30, 40 years would have been dramatically different to what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: They started with the 1936—what is now being called the Nazi Games, where the IOC was quite willing to turn a blind eye to the beginnings of Nazism in order to have the Games in Berlin. “The Games must go on.” That’s the moral of that—their approach to sport. There’s been countless examples since where the basic human rights have been violated in host countries—and not just Beijing, every host country—because of the IOC’s requirement that protest be banned in or near Olympic venues. Host countries use that requirement to extend the ban on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to huge areas and regions of their host city, so that—and we see this in London. We saw the Critical Mass cyclists getting kettled and harassed and treated inhumanely and their basic human rights violated on a large scale a couple of weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, there was a lot of attention now on the first Saudi athletes, one of them fighting judo. What about the other—another judo Olympian. U.S.A.’s first Olympic gold medal in judo went to Kayla Harrison. I want to go to a clip of her describing what keeps her motivated.

KAYLA HARRISON: The feeling of accomplishment after you do something like that with your body, after you, you know, lift whatever amount of weight over your head and then squat it 50 times, or whatever ridiculous thing, it’s awesome. And really, what keeps me going back is that sense of accomplishment. But also, I know, without a doubt, when I step on the mat, that there’s not going to be anybody in better shape than me, and there’s not going to be anybody that’s worked harder than me. And that’s a really, really big confidence booster.

AMY GOODMAN: Kayla Harrison is not only an Olympic champion but also a survivor of sexual abuse. Her former coach, Daniel Doyle, reportedly abused her during competition trips to other countries. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to one count of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign land. He was banned for life by USA Judo. But that admission and the significance of her coming out, of Kayla coming out, Helen, at the Olympics?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: That was dramatic. And sexual harassment, sexual abuse on the part of coaches directed at young female athletes and young male athletes is rampant. And it’s a secret that—it’s definitely kept under wraps across the world. So, for her to make that public statement and for the world to know that that was her background and that justice, in a sense, has been done, that really was very triumphant, triumph for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the U.S. women’s soccer team has gotten a lot of attention. They won last night against Japan. I wanted to turn to soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who recently went public about being a lesbian. She said it was more difficult for male athletes than for women to be open about their sexuality.

MEGAN RAPINOE: I don’t look into it too much. I think that can be a bit dangerous. But everything I’ve seen thus far has been extremely positive, and I think people were wanting this and really welcome it. I think that there’s a lot of gay women in sports, and it’s widely known within the teams, and they can live a pretty open lifestyle without being open in the media. But I think, for men, unfortunately, it’s not the same climate in the locker room.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Helen?

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ: She’s right that it’s more difficult for men, and even some of the top football players who have come out after their careers have been over have admitted that they would have been frightened to come out, for fear of violence from their peers on the team. As for women, certainly, the climate—the acceptance has increased since I started researching these kinds of issues about 25 years ago. But I wouldn’t say it’s smooth sailing for all lesbians in sport, and certainly there’s a lot of—there’s been athletes who see—quite rightly see the need to stay in the closet.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also ask you about Gabby Douglas, the remarkable 16-year-old Olympic gymnast from the United States, first African-American gymnast and first woman of color in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champ and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. However, a lot of the media coverage of Douglas seems to focus less on her athletic abilities and more on, of all things, on her hair. Fox Sports spoke about the controversy to the 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, who’s also African American.

DOMINIQUE DAWES: Our self-esteem many times is wrapped up in our hair. I know a lot of African-American women, including myself, when my hair was relaxed, I did not like working out. When I was training for those three Olympic Games, I was constantly sweating. My hair was relaxed, so it would be dry and brittle because of the relaxer. I didn’t want to get into pools, because the chlorine, mixed with the chemical-treated hair, does not make it look good whatsoever. And that’s what people have been attacking little Gabby Douglas about. And it’s sad that it’s not on her achievement and her performance, and it’s more on the appearance of her hair. But I must say this: if she focused on her hair, she not be—she would not have made history.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, who is also African American. Minky Worden, as we wrap up?

MINKY WORDEN: Well, it’s tragic that the focus is on their hair and not on their amazing performances. And just to return to what you opened with, with the Olympic Charter, it clearly bans discrimination against women on the basis of race, and I—you know, I would like to say that, as far as Saudi women are concerned, there are women inside Saudi Arabia who are fighting very hard for the right to go to play basketball, to go to a soccer pitch. They’re wearing men’s cleats. They’re training far outside the cities. They don’t—they’re taking great risks to play sports. And, you know, when we cheer Olympians in London, let’s just remember all of the people who don’t have the privileges and the ability to play sports, and let’s do our best to change the government policy that is currently still banning women from sports in Saudi Arabia.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. This is an ongoing conversation. Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch and Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, we thank you both for being with us.

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