The time is right for change in Saudi Arabia
- By Richard Branson -
- Aug 09, 2012
It was a heartening experience to yesterday see Saudi Arabia’s first ever female Olympic athlete, Sarah Attar, take part in the 800m heats. Despite finishing well behind the rest of the field Attar’s appearance was of great significance.
When watching the race I thought back to the time I once made a speech in Saudi Arabia. Just before walking on stage I was told that all the women in the audience had been put behind a glass panel to the far left of the room, with the men happy to occupy the best seats.
I wasn’t going to say anything but as I got up on stage I was shocked to see the sight of all the men sitting right at the front, leaving the women in an area behind a screen where they couldn't even get a proper view of the stage.
Startled by this I made an impromptu and honest remark, addressing the men in the room. “I’m a great believer that when in Rome you do as the Romans do, but I do find it strange that you have taken all the best seats and left the women to occupy this horrible area to the far side of the room.”
This observation was followed by a deathly hush and then suddenly a massive eruption of noise, as the women in attendance shouted, stomped their feet and threw handbags in the air. This was a clear demonstration of just how frustrated many of the women of Saudi Arabia are. Not being allowed to drive, not being treated fairly and denied even a basic level of equality.
It’s difficult to understand how this sort of behaviour still takes place, we can only hope that Attar’s appearance at these Olympics sparks a change of attitude within her country.
A final word on the subject should go to the athlete herself, who perfectly summed up the experience: "It is such an honour to be representing Saudi Arabia. Hopefully this can make such a huge difference. It was such a unique opportunity [to represent Saudi Arabia], they invited me and welcomed me and to make that first step for women is just the most amazing feeling ever."
By Richard Branson. Founder of Virgin Group