Saudi women athletes will at last be allowed to compete at the Olympics, according to a statement put out yesterday evening by the country’s Olympic Committee. 
The decision was a controversial one in a country that still disapproves of women participating in public life . Saudi women are highly unlikely to play sports in government run schools and conservatives consider any kind of physical activity ‘improper’ for girls.
So far the only competitor eligible to stand is showjumper, Dalma Rushdi Malhas . But even her presence at the London 2012 games will be a huge leap forward for women’s rights in the Kingdom.
Saudi officials have not ruled out allowing other female athletes, provided they meet the right standards and can dress “to preserve their dignity.” This does mean Saudi women athletes will have to cover their hair with a “sports hijab” but the commission has ruled that their faces can be left exposed.
Human rights groups had called on a total ban for Saudi athletes - both male and female - at the Olympics, on the basis of gender discrimination. A senior Saudi official told the BBC that the decision had been taken with this in mind:
"Partly because of the mounting criticism we woke up and realized we had to deal with this. We believe Saudi society will accept this," he said.
Dalma Malhas was the first Saudi woman to participate in the Youth Olympics in 2010, when she received permission to compete outside of the country’s official team. In February this year she told a conference on women in sports that she dreamed of competing at London 2012:
“I am determined to give my best to reach their [male athletes] level one day and prove all women athletes, all over the world, should be given equal opportunities,” she said.
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