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Saudis allow women to compete

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JEDDAH — Saudi Arabia is to allow its women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time.

Officials say the country’s Olympic Committee will “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify”.

The decision will end recent speculation as to whether the entire Saudi team could have been disqualified on grounds of gender discrimination.

The public participation of women in sport is still fiercely opposed by many Saudi religious conservatives. There is almost no public tradition of women participating in sport in the country.
Saudi officials say that, if successful in qualifying, female competitors would be dressed “to preserve their dignity”.

In practice this is likely to mean modest, loose-fitting garments and “a sports hijab”, a scarf covering the hair but not the face.

For the desert kingdom, the decision to allow women to compete in the Olympics is a huge step, overturning deep-rooted opposition from those opposed to any public role for women.

As recently as April, the indications were that Saudi Arabia’s rulers would accede to the sensitivities of the religious conservatives and maintain the ban on allowing women to take part.

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