Thursday, July 19, 2012

The London Olympics . . . and Gender

Whether legal or cultural, gender barriers--almost all of which cause women to be left out or otherwise disadvantaged, in case that needs to be said--remain all too common in the modern world.  My own university has never had a female president or provost; my college within the university has never been led by a female dean.  The United States, Mexico, France (etc., etc.) and 52 of the 53 countries on the African continent have never had a female president.  In spite of the remaining barriers, not just in education and politics but in business, the arts, religion, and many other fields, progress is occurring.  In this year that just happens to mark the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of Title IX, there will be more women than men representing the United States in the London Olympics.  That has never happened before.  And in the upcoming Olympic Games, every single country participating will do so with both female and male athletes.  That, too, has never happened before.

Three countries--Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia--had to overcome their long traditions of gender discrimination in order ensure that every team participating in the London Olympics has both male and female representatives.  Ironically (given what I said about my university), a Pepperdine student, Sarah Attar, will be half of the female contingent on Saudi Arabia's Olympic team.  A member of the women's track team at Pepperdine, Attar will compete at 800 meters in London.

Attar was born and raised in California but has both U.S. and Saudi Arabian citizenship.  Given the limited opportunities for women in sports in Saudi Arabia, going outside the Kingdom to find Attar or someone like her was one of the few options for bringing a woman onto the Saudi Arabian Olympic team.  (The other woman on the Saudi Arabian team, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, is from Saudi Arabia and will compete in judo.)

As this essay by Eman Al Nafjan points out, terrible discrimination against women persists in Saudi Arabia; giving in to the International Olympic Committee's threat to bar Saudi Arabia from participating in the Olympics hardly qualifies as a magnanimous gesture on the part of the royal family.  Nevertheless, from small beginnings great things sometimes emerge.  Just ask the 269 women on the U.S. team, most of whom are beneficiaries of a law called Title IX.