Roqaya al-Gassra, an athlete from Bahrain, competed in the 400 metres in Beijing totally covered, thus openly demonstrating a political and religious stance. In a newspaper article at the time she said that she had decided to wear Islamic dress, "to show the Muslim tradition" and "to show that all Muslim women can succeed in sport wearing a veil". (She has since been suspended for two years for failing an out-of-competition drugs test.)
The Ligue du Droit International des Femmes (International League of Women's Rights) is leading the campaign to end discrimination towards women at the Olympics. Founded by the French feminist and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir in 1983, LDIF is part of France's largest coalition of women's groups and is backed by the European Women's Lobby, a network of 2,500 NGOs.
LDIF aims to promote universal rights for women whatever their culture or religion. Its president, Annie Sugier, says that its members consider the Islamic headscarf an insult to liberty, and men-only delegations akin to apartheid. "The IOC has shown its hypocrisy on this matter. Would Jewish members of a delegation be allowed to take part in events whilst wearing Hasidic attire, or a Christian whilst wearing a crucifix? If we are to reject symbols representing the struggle against racial discrimination, why should we support those that clearly denote gender apartheid?"
The LDIF views are supported by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, all of which have passed resolutions on the full participation of women in the Olympics. Why, then is it possible for the IOC to flout the rules and go against the spirit of the Olympics when it comes to the participation of some Islamic countries?
Christophe De Kepper, chief of staff at the IOC, responded to several letters of complaint from LDIF but ignored the central question. "The IOC is convinced that sport helps empower girls and women because it changes attitudes," he wrote. "When a woman athlete triumphs she often becomes a role model for her family, her community, or even her country."
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