While Olympic leaders and human rights advocates are encouraged by signs that Saudi Arabia may bow to pressure and send female athletes to the Summer Games, women athletes in the ultraconservative kingdom are worried about a backlash at home.
Under pressure from the IOC to end the tradition of sending men-only teams to the Olympics, Saudi Arabia said on Monday it will allow women who qualify to compete at the London Games. The announcement came as the leadership’s favoured candidate, equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was ruled out of the Olympics — sending officials on a hunt for other female athletes they could include on the Saudi team and avoid IOC sanctions a month before the start of the Games. Women who play soccer and basketball in underground leagues around Saudi Arabia support those efforts, yet they also fear the hardline Muslim leaders will punish them for being pressured by the West and will crack down on women’s clandestine activities after the Olympic flame goes out in London.
“We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard,” said Rawh Abdullah, a captain of a female soccer team in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience.”
Also, she added, she and her teammates simply “are not ready to compete on such level” because they cannot train properly.
Abdullah has given up her career as a teacher to run the all-women soccer club Al Tahaddi, Arabic for challenge. Since 2006, when the club was established, 25 team members meet four times a week to play after turning one of the players’ gardens into a field.
The 28-year-old Abdullah, who serves as a coach and the captain on the team, charges each member $350 annual fee to play. The money she gets covers players outfits, balls, makeshift goals, fitness equipment and partly also trips to the port city of Jeddah to play exhibition games or matches in the clandestine women’s league.