(WNN) Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA, MIDDLE EAST: In what might be seen by some as an opening for women in Saudi Arabia to have greater access to sports and more recreational physical activities outside the home, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a Saudi government policy group that has been closely tied to policing women’s Islamic dress in the region, said yes to allowing women to ride their bikes in public. But the policy does not allow women to do so alone. They must have a male chaperone and they must wear dress that has been seen as ‘restrictive’ to numerous women inside and outside the Western world.
“The topic of sports for women and girls has become hotly debated in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Saudi government statements have veered between vague promises of liberalization and outright rejection of expanding the limited existing opportunities for women and girls to engage in physical exercise and sports. But in terms of policies and practice, the Saudi government continues to flagrantly deny women and girls their right to practice physical education in schools and to practice recreational and competitive sports more generally,” said global advocates Human Rights Watch in October 2012.
In August of last year the first Saudi woman to run for track and field in the International Olympics last August, Sarah Attar, was allowed to be part of the competition as a representative of Saudi Arabia.
In spite of controversies some advocates do see a slow and steady lifting of restrictions against women in the region. As far back as 2009 women who were attending the then new King Abdullah Science and Technology University was the first public institution of higher learning to allow women to attend without wearing a face veil. Women were also allowed to mingle with men attending class on the campus.
Sports, dress, freedom of movement inside and outside the home, divorce and rights in court are all part of the uphill climb women advocates face in the region. As advocates line up on one side and religious conservative leaders line up on the other, the opportunity for discussion on human rights and human dignity, especially inside the media, is expanding.
“I was heartened to learn that women students now outnumber their male colleagues. Education, including higher studies, is available to an ever-increasing number of women in the region. Investing in education, including education for women, is not only fair, but it is also smart policy which is proven to yield high returns for the wellbeing and prosperity of communities, and ultimately entire countries,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in 2010.
In spite of Saudi King Abdullah’s wish for reform and progress, the most recent March policy of executions in the region has brought widespread international outcry. What has been described as torture and intimidation while under arrest, with violations of international laws and standards in court surrounding the case of seven young men sentenced to death for robbery, brought a one month delay of the order for execution. But the delay did not save the men’s lives. They death by firing squad occurred on March 13.
Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek was executed by beheading in January of 2013 after she was accused years earlier, at the age of 17, of being involved in what she outlined was the “accidental death of the child in her care.” Nafeek had been accused of the crime after she worked as a domestic nanny for her host family for only a few weeks. Her arrest and time in jail was said to have been one in which she was denied the rights that advocates say she deserved according to a court of law. She is said to have spent her days in prison, right up to her execution, working on her own sewing projects and knitting.
“Her execution is clearly contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture,” said Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Méndez is also a lawyer and human rights activist, as well as Visiting Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law.
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