Women in the World

07.01.12

Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Olympic Women

Saudi Arabia has lifted the ban on its women competing in the Olympics. David Keyes says rather than celebrate, this is the moment to push the oppressive kingdom much further.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, Saudi women are finally free at last to participate in the Olympics.

Before praising the last country in the world that banned women from going to the Games, here are a few things women still can’t do in Saudi Arabia: travel without a man’s permission, wear shorts to a mall, walk with a male friend in public, drive, or vote for her country’s leader.

So congratulations to Saudi Arabia, which just zoomed out of the 7th century into the early 8th century in terms of women’s rights. There is so much optimism in the air, it’s hard not to think that in just a few hundred years, the Saudi government might no longer behead women like Amina bint Nasser for being a “witch.”

Though Saudi women are now allowed to compete in the Olympics, not a single one qualified for it--not unsurprising for a country that won’t even let women drive to a gym to practice their sport. State schools, moreover, bar women’s physical education and in 2009 private women’s gyms were summarily closed in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s long-overdue capitulation was due to international pressure, not any sort of beneficence on the part of unelected, theocratic, gender-apartheid-enforcing geriatric despots. This is further confirmation that Saudi Arabia is not the invincible power unaffected by external pressure that some imagine. It is time, in other words, to turn up the heat.

The 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, named after Sen. Scoop Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik, tied the most favored nation status of the Soviet Union to the right of people to emigrate freely. That bill put critical pressure on the Soviet dictatorship and exposed its inner weakness. A modern-day Jackson-Vanik amendment against Saudi Arabia would do much to advance the cause of human rights.

The $60 billion arms deal President Obama signed last year with Saudi Arabia should have been tied to the right of women to drive or travel freely. Instead, Saudi Arabia was rewarded with the largest U.S. arms deal in history without any meaningful pressure on the dictatorship.

The Saudis are so brazen that their embassy in Washington, D.C., unabashedly proclaims on its website that “Ladies cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a male relative.” Imagine—just imagine!—if any other embassy explicitly banned blacks, Muslims, women, or gays from applying for a visa without a babysitter. That nation would rightly be protested, sanctioned, and disparaged at every possible moment. Instead, the oil-rich Saudi dictatorship mocks our most cherished values and gets weapons in return.

The $60 billion arms deal President Obama signed last year with Saudi Arabia should have been tied to the right of women to drive or travel freely.

On Sept. 27, 1972, Senator Jackson rose in the U.S. Congress and boldly declared, “Mr. President, we Americans are fortunate to have at our service the greatest economy the world has ever known. It can do more than enrich our lives. It can be pressed into service as an instrument of our commitment to individual liberty. We can deny our vast markets to the Soviet Union. We can reserve participation in our credit and investment programs—our ‘internal’ matters—to those countries who accord their citizens the fundamental human rights to emigrate. We can, and we must, keep the faith of our own highest traditions. We must not now, as we did once, acquiesce to tyranny while there are those, at greater risk than ourselves, who dare to resist.”

The brilliant Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov said, “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.” Conditioning U.S. arms to Saudi women’s rights is both the moral and pragmatic choice.