Head-to-toe Muslim veils like burkas and abayas make exercise difficult. But an even bigger obstacle is nations that see exercise for women as immodest and even illegal. Physical activity is forbidden in Saudi Arabia’s state-run girls’ schools, notes the New York Times. But debate over the issue has been ignited since a young Saudi equestrienne, competing at her own expense, brought home a bronze medal in the Youth Olympic Games, marking the first time any Saudi woman has ever participated in an international sports event. “The freedom to practice sports and to exercise is such a very basic issue," said Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed. The Olympic Charter states that “the practice of sport is a human right," he added.
Ahmed compares Saudi women to blacks under apartheid, and has launched a movement to convince the Olympics to ban participation of Saudi Arabia until the nation agrees to allow its women to compete. An Olympic official indicated the organization would not give Saudi Arabia a deadline mandating participation of women, as it did with South Africa concerning blacks. Some amateur sports teams are springing up for Saudi women. “You have high rates of diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and depression for women," said one sports organizer. “You have this conservative segment using religion to oppose women’s sports. That's an invalid argument.” But the Saudi Grand Mufti said on TV recently: “Women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.” (Read more burka stories.)