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Millions of Saudi women still banned from sports: HRW

DUBAI -- Human Rights Watch warned on Monday that despite a Saudi announcement that women will be allowed to participate in the 2012 Olympics, millions of women are still banned from sports in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

“It's an important step forward, but fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports in the kingdom,” the New York-based watchdog said in a statement.

“Millions of (Saudi) girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools,” HRW added.

Saudi Arabia's embassy in London issued a statement on Sunday announcing that women will be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games for the first time.

The Saudi Olympic Committee will “oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify,” the BBC quoted the statement as saying.

So far there has been no official confirmation of the report from Saudi Arabia, and none of the local newspapers reported the announcement on Monday.

The issue of women participating in sports remains extremely sensitive in the Muslim state, where women are not even allowed to drive and the authorities shut down private gyms for women in 2009 and 2010.

Meanwhile Dalma Malhas, tipped to become a pioneering woman competitor for Saudi Arabia, failed to qualify for the games, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) said on Monday.

“Regretfully the Saudi Arabian rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas has not attained the minimum eligibility standards and consequently will not be competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games,” FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos said in a statement out of Lausanne.

He said that the International Olympic Committee however “has a number of other female athletes from Saudi Arabia in other sports who are currently under consideration.”

Malhas, 20, had been aiming to achieve the minimum eligibility standard required for the Olympic Games by the June 17 deadline, but her horse was sidelined by injury and missed a month's work during the qualifying period.

The fact that “so few (Saudi) women are qualified to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country's restrictions on women's rights,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at HRW.

Worden urged the Saudi authorities to “allow sports in schools, gyms for women, and to add women to the Saudi National Olympic Committee immediately.”

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics.

Qatar has already announced it will send a three-woman team to London, comprising shooter Bahia Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Wafa Arakji and Noor Al-Malki, a 100m and 200m sprinter.

Brunei, meanwhile, will send a woman to London as part of its two-athlete delegation — 400m hurdler Maziah Mahusin.

Saudi Arabia's decision could provoke resistance in the country which operates under a strict Islamic code under which women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe.

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