Saudi Women's Olympics Debut 'Means Very Little' for Gender Equality, Experts Say

Two women aren't expected to win, but will their inclusion make a difference for equality? Not likely.

Saudi Arabia
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They didn't qualify for the games. They're not welcome to compete in their country or attend sporting events even as fans. And they are receiving little to no training or promotion from the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee. But despite these obstacles, Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani have arrived in London as their country's first female athletes ever to compete in the Olympic Games.

Yet while the two women, who were born and raised in America, are hoping to make a statement for women in sports, experts say their inclusion in the 2012 London Olympic Games will have little impact for women abroad.

"It probably means very little," says Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It is unlikely that the Saudi government or the Saudi sporting authorities of their own volition will make changes inside the country as a result of sending two women to the Olympics."

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The move to send the women along with the Saudi Arabian men competing in the games came after multiple attempts from the International Olympic Committee to get the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee to end its tradition of sending all-male teams to the games.

Shahrkhani, who will compete in the +78kg judo matches starting August 3, and Attar, who will take off in the 800m run starting August 8, have not qualified for the games because there is no national competition in Saudi Arabia for women. They were instead invited to participate in an effort by the IOC to include female athletes on every country's team.

This is the first year that every team has had at least one female athlete competing in an Olympic Games. In the 1996 Atlanta games, 26 countries' teams did not include women, and in the 2008 Beijing games only Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia failed to have women on their teams.

But the women who grew up in the United States will not have the same freedom as Americans competing in the London Olympics—they will have to cover their legs, arms, bodies, and heads.

"I wouldn't call it a major breakthrough, but it does set a precedent," said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "Sports for women are contested in several conservative Islamic societies around the world. The fact that the Saudis have capitulated and allowed women to participate in international competition will no doubt inspire others to push for more."

Attar told ABC News that she hopes this is the beginning of something bigger for women athletes.

"I definitely think that my participation in this Olympic Games can increase women's participation in sports in general. I can only hope for the best for them in that we can really get some good strides going for women in the Olympics further and in sports in general," she said.

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"We all have the potential to get out there and get moving so I really think that we should do the best we can."

But will their best make a difference for women looking to train and compete in the future?

"Not anytime soon," said Coleman. "The decision to allow women to participate was fought by religious conservatives. It will not lead to any wholesale changes soon."

While there may not be immediate changes, this year's Olympic Games mark history for the two women and their country.

"Everything in Saudi Arabia takes a long, long time. What I think this participation does is break a taboo and break a barrier, but I don't think that will lead to concrete changes led by the Saudi government," said Wilcke.

"What I think it will do, it will increasingly encourage women in Saudi Arabia to take matters into their own hands, which they're doing already. They're forming small groups to play soccer, and try to rent a facility outside of town, have their brothers stay in the car, that kind of thing."

U.S. News & World Report Senior Producer Deb Bell contributed to this report.

Valerie Bonk is an assistant editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.