At 20 years old, the Saudi Arabian showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas was poised to become the first female to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympic Games… ever.
In recent months, some have called for the IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics until it reversed its position of disallowing females from participating in the Games. The only other two countries that have never sent a female to the games, Brunei and Qatar, are sending their first integrated teams to London. On Sunday Saudi Arabia announced that it was looking forward to coed participation in the Games as well.
Saudi Arabia remains one of the most socially conservative nations in the world. A report released by Human Rights Watch earlier this year reported that participation in sports for Saudi females is all but non-existent: There are no state-sponsored athletics for girls in schools, and the few women’s sports teams in the country are forbidden from competing before coed crowds. Saudi women aren’t even eligible for driver’s licenses or able to vote, so women’s athletics must seem like a pipe dream at best.
Born in Ohio and raised in Europe, Dalma is Saudi by nationality but grew up in a far different social atmosphere. In 2010 she became the first Saudi woman to compete in the Youth Olympics, where she won a bronze. In February, Dalma announced at a conference on women and sports that she would one day compete alongside male Saudi Olympic athletes. “I am determined to give my best to reach their level one day, and prove that all women athletes, all over the world, should be given equal opportunities,” she said.
It seemed that “one day” might come sooner rather than later when Saudi Arabia reversed its position on allowing females to compete in the Olympics no Sunday. The late decision seemed likely to affect only one female Saudi athlete, Dalma. The Wall Street Journal reported, “With the London Olympic Games due to start within weeks, only one female Saudi athlete, show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas, is generally considered to be trained and ready to compete at the level of the Olympics.”
Yesterday, however, the FEI released a statement explaining that Dalma “had been aiming to achieve the minimum eligibility standard required for the Olympic Games by the 17 June deadline, but her horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month’s work during the qualifying period.” Thus, she is not qualified to compete.
Dalma, we look forward to watching you achieve your dream of representing Saudi Arabia on the international stage in 2016. In the meantime, however, an under-fire decision by the Saudi government to permit female participation in the Olympics doesn’t make amends for the country’s larger, systemic issue of gender inequality. Not having ever lived in Saudi Arabia herself, Dalma’s victory is a triumph of theory rather than widespread application.
Make noise, Horse Nation. If we don’t, who will?
Photo caption: Dalma Rushdi Malhas (KSA) at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. © IOC