Human rights

Feminists: Iran and Saudi Arabia should face Olympic ban for “sexual apartheid”

The exclusion of women from sporting events in the Islamic nations is akin to “racial apartheid in South Africa’s darkest years,” say leading French feminists

Iran's Leyla Rajabi competes in the women's shot put qualifications at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GettyImages)

A group of leading French feminists has called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to exclude Saudi Arabia and Iran from next month’s games in Rio de Janeiro for “sexual apartheid” of women in sport, just as South Africa was banned over racial apartheid.

Writing in the French daily Liberation, Linda Weil-Curiel — a prominent attorney and Secretary of the International League of Women’s Rights, founded by Simone de Beauvoir — with League President Annie Sugier and European women’s lobby representative Francoise Morvan, appealed to the governing body to punish Riyadh and Tehran for contravening the Olympic charter by continuing to forbid women from spectating men’s events at sports stadiums — and in Saudi’s case outlawing girls and women playing sport at all at schools and public colleges.

Exclusion was merited because both countries promised to change their draconian regimes as a condition of continued participation, while Saudi Arabia pledged to “develop women’s sports” — yet neither country had kept its promises and thus was guilty of breaching Olympics principles and rules, wrote the feminist leaders. “The Rio Olympic Games will open on August 5, with the participation of thousands of athletes of different nationalities,” Weil-Curiel, Sugier and Morvan wrote. “But the celebration will not be able to hide the blemish of the presence of two countries who shamelessly adhere to a strict sexual apartheid that would be the envy of racial apartheid in South Africa’s darkest years.”

Saudi women in Riyadh watch Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar competing in the women's 800m heats at the athletic event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (FAYEZ NURELDINE /GettyImages)

Saudi women in Riyadh watch Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar competing in the women’s 800m heats at the athletic event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (FAYEZ NURELDINE /GettyImages)

In their op-ed the French feminists point out that Iran and Saudi Arabia “are the only countries in the world that forbid women from entering stadiums.”

“In Rio their delegations will undoubtedly include some alibi athletes covered from head to foot in the Islamic uniform imposed on the women so that their bodies are invisible to the eyes of the crowds.

“These countries flout the principles and rules written in to the Olympic charter and to which they are signatories. The practice of sport is a human right. Each individual must have the possibility to play sport without discrimination of any sort (principles V and VI) and the International Olympic Committee has given itself the mission of promoting male-female equality (Chapter 1). ”

The authors cited the Olympics rule that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted on any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’ site or other Olympic location’ (rule 50-52).”

According to the human rights defenders, the IOC and international federations were giving in “when faced with demands that have nothing to do with sport and which hurt women.”

“By doing so they betray the Muslim women athletes who have run with their arms and legs uncovered, like the first gold medalists for the Maghreb (Moroccan Nawal el-Moutawakel at the 1984 Los Angeles games, Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka in Barcelona in 1992 and the Tunisian Habiba Ghribi at the London Games in 2012.)”

Iran has promised “many times” to lift its ban on women attending sporting events while Saudi Arabia had advised the IOC it would support the growth of women’s sport.

Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel raises her country's flag during her lap of honour after she won the women's 400 metres hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics, 8th August 1984. El Moutawakel was the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic medal and the first Moroccan athlete to win gold. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Moroccan hurdler Nawal el-Moutawakel during her lap of honor after winning the women’s 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

As proof of international sport’s willing concessions to sexual apartheid, the women cited the notorious 2014 example of Anglo-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami, who was imprisoned for five months in Iran’s infamous Evin prison for trying to attend a men’s volleyball game in the capital.

After declaring it would no longer allow Tehran to organize official competitions inside its territory, the federation backtracked and said it didn’t want to punish “an entire generation of athletes who wanted to play sport.”

“It was understood that the International Volleyball Federation was concerned about male athletes,” the French women’s activists wrote. “But if they had been deprived of participation in competition, perhaps they would have been more inclined to solidarity with their female peers.”

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar competes in the women's 800m heats at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages)

Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar competes in the women’s 800m heats at the athletics event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages)

The authors also took aim at Saudi Arabia’s so-called “reform” manifesto “Vision 2030″ that identifies sport as a practice that is essential for health and whose development must be encouraged, pointing out “there is no mention of female sport, nor of lifting the ban on sport for girls in schools and public colleges.”

The appeal is not the first time feminists and dissidents have cried foul over the IOC’s concessions to theocratic regimes. Since the 1990s the Olympics body has been pressured to allow all-male delegations from Islamic countries, and more recently, as the number of all-male delegations dropped, to permit women competitors in full Islamic head and body coverings. In 2012 the ruling body created controversy by approving women to participate in Olympics qualifiers and the Games wearing hijabs, despite loud campaigns against “gender apartheid” by women’s rights militants from the Arab world and Iran, such as exiled Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie. America looks set to have its first athlete in a headscarf when fencer and conservative Muslim activist Ibtihaj Muhammad heads to Rio wearing sports clothing backed by Islamist codes on “modest dress” for women.

Posing the question “Who is going to protest?” the authors of the op-ed concluded: “The IOC knew how to condemn racial apartheid and exclude South Africa from the games for 30 years, just as it knew recently how to suspend the Russian athletics federation because of institutionalized doping, and to suspend Kuwait on the basis of governmental interference in local sporting bodies.

“It is time for the Olympic movement to ban two countries who repeatedly scorn rights of women and the rules of sport founded on universal values. If only it would have the courage to exclude Saudi Arabia and Iran from the Olympic Games!”

Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons


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