Women making history in 2012 Olympics

With the 2012 Summer Olympic games less than two weeks away, many countries are finalizing team rosters and the athletes who will represent them in the world competition.

Saudi Arabia allows first female athletes

Two stories in this week’s coverage leading up to the games, however, focused on the female athletes who will take part in the London games. For the first time, all of the 204 countries participating will include female athletes. This milestone came once Saudi Arabia announced this week it would send two women to compete in judo and the 800-meter race. Two other countries, Qatar and Brunei, will send women to the games for the first time as well. One of Qatar’s three female athletes, Bahiya al-Ahmad, will carry her country’s flag in the opening ceremonies.

Once the Saudi Embassy in London announced they would allow a female athlete who could qualify to compete, it became clear that no women in the country had met the qualifying times. According to the Wall Street Journal, an International Olympic Committee spokeswoman said both Saudi athletes were accepted under the Olympics’ “universality” clause, which allows athletes who didn’t meet qualifying times to compete when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality.

Despite international coverage, Saudi media outlets still did not highlight the announcement. According to the Associated Press, both athletes live outside the kingdom and carry almost no influence as sports figures. The nation still bans women from driving or traveling without the approval of a male guardian. While girl’s sports are effectively banned in the nation’s schools, viewers of mixed audiences will be able to watch the women compete.

United States’ team brings more female athletes than male

In another first for the Olympic Games, team U.S.A. will have more female athletes than males at this year’s games, prompting USA Today to call the event the “Title IX Olympics.” The 530-member team is comprised of 269 women and 261 men. In comparison, 2008’s team in Bejing had a roster of 310 men and 286 women.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the shift in numbers can be explained more through changes to sports included or removed from this year’s roster, as well as the U.S. men’s soccer team’s failure to qualify. Softball and baseball were both removed in 2012, but the first female boxer from the United States and the qualification of the women’s field hockey team added athletes to the final total. Women also represent the youngest and oldest athletes to compete for the United States.

In the last 40 years, women’s participation in the summer games has more than tripled, making them 45 percent of the 2012 athletes. Until the 1984 Los Angeles Games, women were not allowed to run a marathon. Less than 20 years ago, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, 26 countries did not send women.

“The I.O.C. has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today’s news can be seen as an encouraging evolution,” Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said Thursday in a statement about the participation of Saudi women.

The opening ceremony for the London games will be held July 27.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

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Saudi women given right to vote, run in future elections

News organizations and social networks were buzzing Sunday morning after Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced that women would be given the right to vote and to run in future local elections as well as join the advisory Shura council as full members.

This marks a significant shift for the conservative Muslim country where activists have been calling for further rights for women.

“Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama [clerics] and others … to involve women in the Shura council as members, starting from the next term” (King Abdullah said in his speech, according to The Guardian)

Saudi writer Nimah Ismail Nawwab, in talking to the BBC, said activists have been campaigning on this issue and others related to women’s rights in the country for 20 years. In this report by Al Jazeera, Hatoon Al Fassi, a professor of women’s history at Saud University, comments on the decision and the long-term efforts for further women’s rights in the country:

Women in Saudi Arabia currently must have written approval from a male to work, leave the country or for certain medial procedures, and public segregation of the sexes is the norm. Women are also still not allowed to drive, though there is no specific law against it. This became the most recent hot-button issue as over the summer women protested by defying the ban and driving. Some women were arrested as a result. This issue was not addressed in the announcement.

The White House offered praise of the decision Sunday morning, with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor saying the move recognizes the “significant contributions” that women make in Saudi Arabia, according to the AP.

Some commentators have suggested that the elections are meaningless and these elected positions don’t hold real power, as noted in this Christian Science Monitor story. But many are still acknowledging the symbolic importance of involving women.

This changes will go into effect after Thursday’s election. The next municipal elections will be in 2015.

Here’s a roundup of some of the initial coverage:

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.