Augusta National's "Woman Problem" Just Latest Example of Gender Discrimination in Sports

As final-round action wrapped up at the Masters on an Easter Sunday at Augusta, the news over the past few days centered around the shots being taken by the field as they took on the legendary course. Much of the coverage preceding the tournament focused on two main storylines: the duel everyone wanted to project as Tiger Woods charged back into the public consciousness and Rory McIlroy returned to the site of his first major collapse as a professional, and whether or not membership would be extended to the new CEO of a multinational corporation who had always been rewarded for the rise to the top with this additional perk.

The first question became largely moot as both Woods and McIlroy played their way out of contention on the middle days of the tournament and limped home on Sunday with a pair of over-par performances that settled them side by side in a tie for 41st place. The latter was largely ignored, as Ginni Rometty’s ascent to the top at IBM has yet to yield a green jacket and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne deflected every journalist’s attempt to raise the membership issue during the tournament.

In the fortieth year since Title IX changed the landscape for female athletes forever in the United States, this slight was seen as a flashpoint of 21st-century gender discrimination. Protesters congregated outside the golf club, trying in vain to force Payne’s hand. But Rometty — who attended the tournament as the chief executive of one of its major sponsors — refrained from causing a commotion about the situation, and the golf itself was allowed to become the focus of the weekend. Rometty, who rose to the head of one of the world’s largest corporations, knows that a private club is exactly that — private. There is no such thing as precedent that forces your decisions when you allow just a few hundred members at any given time.

What, really, is Augusta National? It is nothing more than an elitist version of the He-Man Woman Haters Club, a chance for a good-ole boy network to hobnob and do whatever it is that elitist guys do when they’re having a weekend away from the ladies. That’s the private club. It is also a golf course upon which anybody of any gender, race and religion can come and play with the invitation of one of those members. By nature the two are interlinked, but they are still distinct of one another.

Real gender discrimination is another thing altogether. Rometty didn’t rock the boat because, in the long run, there are far greater battles to fight on the front than full participation in a world of elitist snobbery that is but one facet of a place where she can already enjoy the surroundings. Rometty knows that, while she might not don a green jacket on the grounds, the club also isn’t about to deny the head of one of its biggest sponsors to come down to Georgia and play whenever she wants. And as for other women — and men — who don’t get to play the course, there are many things in life which our particular lot will deny to us.

The vitriol directed at Payne and the secretive Augusta membership rolls would be better directed at an Olympic movement which is in danger of capitulating to wanton, blatant denigration of its highest ideals.

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

– Article 5, Fundamental Principles of Olympism

Arwa Mutabagani never did get her chance at an Olympic level. In her early forties, the single mother still looks like she could compete against the world’s greats, though her focus has been diverted to the next generation. Mutabagani, who owns several training centers for show jumpers in Saudi Arabia and Europe and has been an integral part of the traditional Saudi sport for over two decades, has played an instrumental role for women in Saudi sport on several levels beyond her competition days.

In 2008 Mutabagani went to Beijing, the first female member ever to travel as part of a Saudi Olympic delegation following her election to the board of the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Foundation. From her platform as a well-known and respected trainer and horsewoman, Mutabagani has been able to slowly effect change behind the scenes, slowly helping pry the doors open to allow for sports participation among the greater female Saudi populace.

Dalma Malhas is a paradox of the conflicting times and thought processes of the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia. As Mutabagani’s daughter, Malhas has been raised in the equestrian life and has spent her adolescence rising in skill to the point where she is on the cusp of taking her place among the elite of international show-jumping competition. Training in Rome since age 12, Malhas has been actively advancing her mother’s groundbreaking inroads for Saudi women in sports.

She has already lived a dream her mother long harbored, becoming the first Saudi woman in history to compete at any level of the Olympics when she competed at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore as an 18-year-old. The bronze medal she earned in the equestrian competition was just the third Olympic medal ever captured by a Saudi competitor, male or female, in any Olympic competition.

Yet the result was never officially recognized by the Saudi Olympic Committee, who were not complicit in Malhas’ participation in Singapore. Denied entry to the Saudi equestrian team in advance of the Youth Olympic Games, Malhas was extended a special invitation directly by the IOC. Conflicting emotions raged in a country where official government policy has dissuaded female athletic participation at every opportunity, pride for Olympic success tinged with shame as the face under the riding helmet peered back with all its youthful femininity.

Speaking at the 9th World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Doha, Qatar in 2011, Malhas articulated the duality of her place in Saudi consciousness. “Last August, I had the great opportunity of participating in the equestrian events, thereby becoming the first Saudi female to take part in an Olympic competition. The individual bronze medal which I was so fortunate and grateful to receive should demonstrate that women must always be given the same opportunities given to men, for we are capable of reaching the same heights. Though with time I would realize that although I had gained a small individual victory in Singapore, this victory symbolized a much greater and more significant step forward for women in sport, and in Arab society in general. I truly believe that everyone should have the right and opportunity to participate in sport as a positive means to promote and celebrate the welfare of both mind and body.”

Hers is a positive message, one uplifting in its hopefulness for a brighter, more inclusive future. But Malhas has also known the opposite side of the coin, the one where her participation is not viewed as inspiration but as infidelity to the ideals of a society governed by religious principles. At the 5th IOC World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles in February 2012, Malhas spoke about the struggles of acceptance in a society that shuns her presence. ”I cannot yet compare myself to the riders of the Saudi First Team, but I am determined to give my best to reach their level one day, and prove that all women athletes, all over the world, should be given equal opportunities,” she said at the conference. “After cutting every corner and fighting hard for that individual bronze medal, I gained the strength to fight for all Saudi and Arab women. Those brief yet enduring moments on the podium gave me the drive and motivation to work until I reach the pinnacle of my sport. It will not take me hours, or days, or months, but years of training and sacrifice. However, time is irrelevant as my goal is clear.”

Malhas, despite having an influential and well-connected benefactor in the Saudi Olympic movement for a mother, still faces an uphill battle in joining an Olympic team that doesn’t want her despite her ownership of one-third of the country’s overall medal haul in any and all levels of the movement. Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf Bin-Faisal — a member of the Saudi royal family and the country’s sports minister — told a press conference on April 4, “I do not endorse female participation of Saudi Arabia at the present time in the Olympics and international tournaments. Female Saudi participation will be according to the wishes of students and others living abroad. All we are doing is to ensure that participation is in the proper framework and in conformity with sharia (Islamic law).”

Malhas is a world-class athlete in her field, a “problem” that most countries would love to have on their rosters but one her nation wishes would never have emerged from the woodwork. Yet for all of the headaches that come with Olympic-size dreams and a national federation aimed at squashing them, she is among the lucky few who have even had a chance to participate.

According to the 2012 Human Rights Watch report, “Steps of the Devil”: Denial of Women and Girls’ Right to Sport in Saudi Arabia, a systemic lack of government support for physical education in girls’ schools and of facilities both public and private for the wider female populace has led to an obesity crisis among the population. The report shows that up to four in every nine Saudi women are clinically obese, largely due to both inadequate athletic infrastructure and societal restrictions which are guided by religious codicils that have been interpreted over the years in a manner that views physical activity as immodest.

The success of one young woman in international competition has shown Saudi girls that, given the opportunity, they too could harbor hidden talents just waiting to be exposed in an athletic setting. The real problem, though, is the complicity of parties that ostensibly hold ideals opposite to the national organizations they are backing.

The Olympics invite the best that each nation has to offer, athletes from six continents congregating in one spot for a month of tests to determine the world’s best in a broad swath of sports. The honor for every athlete comes in representing his or her homeland, of walking proudly in the procession of nations at the opening ceremony behind your flag and standing with your compatriots as representatives of the best your country has to offer.

Saudi Arabia got away with their exclusion in 2010 when Malhas was invited directly by the IOC instead of by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee to participate in the Youth Olympic Games. The message sent by Prince Nawaf is that Saudi women will participate in the Olympics only if they can exploit such loopholes. They want to deny the essence of the Olympic experience to their young female athletes while enjoying the public-relations benefits of their participation — if only to get the media off their backs about the subject.

But Olympic participation is an honor earned, and Fédération Equestre Internationale president Princess Haya of Jordan has already made clear that it cannot send any invitations outside of a national delegation’s allotted team slots. “The FEI will not and cannot issue any ‘invitations’ for the London Olympic Games as has been reported in regard to female athletes from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Princess Haya said about the situation. “We would of course be delighted if Dalma Rushdi Malhas were to compete in London, but she can only do that if she is selected to be part of the Saudi Jumping team. The FEI cannot issue a special invitation for an additional individual athlete.”

What message does it send when a nation will only announce that a female representative on its Olympic roster, as was the case with Malhas at the 2010 Youth Olympics, when she comes home sporting a medal for her efforts? How can a country purport to take the Olympic spirit seriously when it won’t welcome an entire gender onto its delegation? And how can the rest of the world’s Olympic committees continue to silently support the repression of athletic rights by allowing a rogue national federation to act counter to the greater ideals of the movement?

A nation that denies the basics of physical education to millions of girls — that wantonly disregards the health of its mothers and sisters and daughters and wives — is one that spits in the face of the ideals upon which Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic movement. As the Baron was fond of saying, “Sport is part of every man and woman’s heritage and its absence can never be compensated for.” The exclusionary dogma guiding Saudi sports decisions runs anathema to the heritage to which de Coubertin spoke.

The only remedy is a taste of exclusion. In the past the IOC has banned nations from Olympic competition for official government policies which openly espouse ideals that directly contradict Olympism. The most notable example is South Africa, which was banned from all competition for seven Olympic cycles between 1960 and 1992 due to the institutional policy of racial apartheid in the nation. The gender apartheid taking place in Saudi Arabia is no less institutionalized, no less ingrained, no less nefarious at its roots.

Just three nations have yet to send a female to participate in Olympic competition, and the other two — Qatar and Brunei — have both openly signaled their intent to invite women onto their official delegations to the London Olympics this summer. Only Saudi Arabia continues to sneer at the suggestion that its women are deserving of the opportunity to test themselves against the best that the other nations of the world have to offer.

Not being able to join a golf club is one thing. Not being able to feel like a citizen of your own nation is a much more systemic gender discrimination. For all that it has done in the past four decades, Title IX has elevated women’s sports in America to the point where the worst we can find to debate on a given weekend is the denial of a private membership to the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. Because of the widespread ideology of her own government, Dalma Malhas continues honing her craft in exile, waiting to see if she will be given a fair opportunity to fulfill her catalytic potential to bring a Title IX moment of inspiration to her own countrywomen.

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