Laws forbidding unrelated women and men mixing together mean that Saudi female athletes will again be conspicuous by their absence from the Asian Games that start on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive cars, take major decisions without the permission of a male relative or even work as supermarket cashiers, are the sole National Olympic Committee not to register a female athlete for the Asiad which features 45 NOCs competing in 42 sports.
AdvertisementIronically, the absence of a female in its 180-strong delegation comes despite the country this week securing an automatic seat on the board running the new UN super agency for women, UN Women -- from a group of donor countries for which there was no vote.
Angry rights groups said they would now seek to put the spotlight on the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom where severe restrictions on women are supported by the country's conservative traditions together with its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The United States, European Union, Australia and Canada, however, successfully carried out an intensive diplomatic campaign to sway votes against Iran as an expression of disapproval of the country's rights record, its place at UN Women going to East Timor.
Campaigners had highlighted Iran's treatment of women, including the case of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani who was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.
But Iran is certainly present at the Asian Games, fielding an impressive 92 females athletes in its 395-strong delegation, including 14 shooters, a kabbadi team and 24 dragon boat racers.
Saudi Arabia's neighbour Oman has the next worse record, sending tennis player Fatma al-Nabhani as their sole female representative.
Nabhani, who featured in a high-profile advert for US sports manufacturer Nike featuring women athletes around the world, is ranked 372 in the WTA rankings but has said her role was one of developing better understanding.
"I made people here (in Oman) understand that a woman can be an athlete and that a woman can compete in international tournaments," she said.
Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous country, has sent 76 women out of a team of 178, Qatar 56 from 298, Jordan 32 from 88, and Pakistan 28 from 177.
The Gulf state of Yemen has brought the smallest Arab delegation of just 32, with two female athletes and two wushu fighters, while four Palestinian women are included in the territory's 42-strong team.
Bahrain's 74-member team features 10 females athletes, but this impressive figure is somewhat skewed because most are of Ethiopian origin, like the team's reigning double world 1500m champion Maryam Jamal.
Jamal famously caused controversy in Bahrain after competing in midriff-bearing running gear, and will doubtless be better covered up when she hits the track in earnest next week.
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