Qatar — Qatari Olympic women athletes spotlight Wahhabi schism

The ques­tion for Qatari sprint­er Noor al-Mal­ki is not whether she will be part of the first group of Qatari women to ever com­pete in a glob­al sports tour­na­ment at the 2012 Lon­don Olympics but how she will han­dle the fact that the com­pe­ti­tion will take place dur­ing Ramadan.

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The ques­tion whether Ms. Al-Mal­ki would be able to com­pete was resolved when Qatar, along­side Sau­di Ara­bia and Brunei the only nation nev­er to have been rep­re­sent­ed by women in a glob­al sport­ing event, decid­ed last year to allow women to com­pete in the Lon­don Olympics. 

The deci­sion was the result of Qatar’s con­cert­ed effort to become a sports pow­er and mount­ing inter­na­tion­al pres­sure on the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC), not to allow coun­tries to com­pete that dis­crim­i­nate against ath­letes on the basis of gender. 

It saved Qatar, already threat­ened with a glob­al trade union cam­paign against its host­ing of the 2022 World Cup because of the con­di­tions under which it employs for­eign labour, from becom­ing the tar­get of yet anoth­er attack on its rep­u­ta­tion, already dent­ed by con­tro­ver­sy over its suc­cess­ful cam­paign to win the right to host the World Cup. The bruis­ing debate over the soc­cer tour­na­ment bid con­tributed to the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Committee’s deci­sion to elim­i­nate Qatar as a can­di­date for the 2020 Olympics. 

The debate also high­lights the major divide among Wah­habis, fol­low­ers of 18th cen­tu­ry puri­tan war­rior priest Mohammed Abdul Wah­hab, with Sau­di Ara­bia, the only oth­er coun­try besides Qatar with a major­i­ty Wah­habi pop­u­la­tion, and the IOC still strug­gling bare­ly two months before the open­ing of the Lon­don Olympics to find a for­mu­la that would cir­cum­vent the kingdom’s con­ser­v­a­tive oppo­si­tion to women’s participation. 

A Human Rights Watch report released in Feb­ru­ary, called on Sau­di Ara­bia to pro­tect women’s equal right to sports and urged the IOC to live up to its char­ter, which pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion, or face a ban sim­i­lar to that imposed on Afghanistan in 1999 part­ly for its exclu­sion of female athletes. 

For Ms. Al-Mal­ki, the Qatari deci­sion means that she is grap­pling beyond want­i­ng to per­form at the Lon­don Olympics with the require­ment to fast dur­ing the 30 days of Ramadan dur­ing which the tour­na­ment will be held. If the deci­sion to allow women to com­pete may have been dif­fi­cult because of mount­ing con­ser­v­a­tive oppo­si­tion to Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khal­i­fa Al-Thani’s lib­er­al poli­cies designed to posi­tion his tiny gas-rich Gulf state on the world map, resolv­ing the issue of Ramadan coin­cid­ing with the Olympics is easy. 

While Islam­ic law does not grant ath­letes dis­pen­sa­tion from fast­ing dur­ing Ramadan, it does allow trav­ellers to break the fast dur­ing their jour­ney pro­vid­ed they catch up once they return home. Ms. Al-Mal­ki will be trav­el­ling dur­ing the Olympics. 

That is a lux­u­ri­ous posi­tion to be in com­pared to her Sau­di coun­ter­parts who still do not know whether they will be going to Lon­don. Ini­tial Sau­di sug­ges­tions that the king­dom would for the first time send female ath­letes to the Olympics were dashed when Sau­di Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud declared in April that “female sports activ­i­ty has not exist­ed (in the king­dom) and there is no move there­to in this regard. At present, we are not embrac­ing any female Sau­di par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Olympics or oth­er inter­na­tion­al championships.” 

The IOC has reject­ed Sau­di sug­ges­tions that Sau­di women liv­ing abroad be allowed to com­pete under the Olympic flag rather than as part of the offi­cial Sau­di delegation. 

“It’s not an easy sit­u­a­tion. There is a com­mit­ment. We’re work­ing steadi­ly with them to find a good solu­tion,” con­ced­ed IOC Pres­i­dent Jacques Rogge at a recent news con­fer­ence. “We are con­tin­u­ing to dis­cuss with them, and the ath­letes are try­ing (to qual­i­fy). We would hope they will qual­i­fy in due time for the games.” 

With few Sau­di women ath­letes like­ly to qual­i­fy for the Olympics, the IOC has gone out of its way to encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion by sug­gest­ing that they would be exempt­ed from qual­i­fy­ing stan­dards and grant­ed entry under spe­cial circumstances. 

Sau­di women par­tic­i­pa­tion appears how­ev­er increas­ing­ly unlike­ly with con­ser­v­a­tive oppo­si­tion mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the gov­ern­ment to back down at a time that it is ral­ly­ing the wag­ons to shield itself against the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests in the Mid­dle East and North Africa that has already sparked increased polit­i­cal activism and mobil­i­sa­tion in the king­dom. At his news con­fer­ence, Mr. Rogge declined to dis­cuss pos­si­ble penal­ties if the king­dom refused to include women in its Olympic team. 

The Sau­di gov­ern­ment has recent­ly employed the cler­gy to con­demn the protests that have already top­pled the auto­crat­ic lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and brought Syr­ia to the brink of civ­il war, which, accord­ing to some, are the result of the min­gling of the sex­es in sports. 

Sau­di Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdu­laz­iz Al-Sheikh denounced the protests ear­li­er this month as sin­ful. “The schism, insta­bil­i­ty, the mal­func­tion­ing of secu­ri­ty and the break­down of uni­ty that Islam­ic coun­tries are fac­ing these days is a result of the sins of the pub­lic and their trans­gres­sions,” Sheikh Abdu­laz­iz said. 

Such sins include, accord­ing to Imam Abu Abdel­lah of As-Sun­nah mosque in Kissimee, Flori­da, speak­ing in a video post­ed on the Inter­net, the mix­ing of the sex­es at sports events. “In the past it was only men, now it is almost half half (in sta­di­ums). Allah knows what hap­pens after­wards. Either way it is bad. Either peo­ple go out, they are sens­ing and par­ty­ing and drink­ing and all that, so that’s neg­a­tive. And if they don’t, they go out and they demon­strate and they’re angry and they destroy prop­er­ty and they destroy cars and they destroy people’s busi­ness. Either way its haram (for­bid­den), things have to be done in mod­er­a­tion,” Abu Abe­dal­lah said. 

Sheikh Abdul­lah bin Suleiman Al Manei, a mem­ber of the Gulf Kingdom’s supreme schol­ars com­mit­tee and an advi­sor to King Abdul­lah warned that “the spread of such (bad) acts on play fields is a clear indi­ca­tor of a decline in moral val­ues and the trans­for­ma­tion of sport from fair com­pe­ti­tion into bigotry.” 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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