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Even as much of the rest of the Arab World experiences socio-political upheavals on an unprecedented scale, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains largely untouched.
This is unfortunate, since the world’s largest oil producer is also one of its worst human rights abusers. Freedoms of association and expression are severely repressed, with those who dare speak out regularly detained in prisons where reports of torture and abuse are common. As I write, a 23-year-old named Hamza Kashgari faces the prospect of execution for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammed on Twitter.
Rights for women, needless to say, are almost non-existent. Wherever they go, and whatever their age, all women must have a male guardian. They cannot vote or be elected to high political positions, and the desert Kingdom can count itself the only country in the world that forbids women from driving by law.
In spite – or perhaps because – of this, it is on this ground that some creeping moves towards reform are perhaps just starting to be made. In September of last year, King Abdullah announced that from 2015 women would be allowed to vote and to run in local elections.
Now it is being reported that, having never before sent a woman to compete at the Olympics, the prospect of a female Saudi Olympian at this year’s London games might be on the cards. Speculation is rife that the government will send equestrian Dalma Malhas to compete in London, having permitted her to compete in the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore.
However, enthusiasts for reform in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t get too excited. This is, after all, the country whose Supreme Council of Religious Scholars ruled in 2009 that the excessive “movement and jumping” needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity.
Moreover, when a few brave women defied the driving ban last year, the state responded by sentencing one of them, Shaima Jastaina, to 10 lashes by way of punishment. She was spared, but only when the king, almost certainly conscious of the international opprobrium being heaped on his country over the issue, issued an executive pardon.
Considering the exceptionally low level from which it starts, all this might even count as progress. Just don’t expect a Saudi women’s team in the beach volley ball quite yet.