Female Saudi Olympians Exit Quickly, Inspire Hope
They may have finished at the bottom of the pack, but the participation of these athletes has sparked inspiration, criticism, praise and hope. By Afia R Fitriati.
It was the first international match of her life. Fighting against Puerto Rican black belt Melissa Mojica, blue belt judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani had little, if any, chance to win. After all, her previous judo experience was only two years of training in a small room in her Mecca home, coached by her own father. Competing last Friday at London’s Excel Centre, the teenager timidly circled the mat before her opponent grabbed her by the collar and flipped her onto her back. In 82 seconds, the match was over.
Afterwards, Wojdan, who had understandably seemed rather media-shy before the Games, reflected on her experience at the Olympics:
‘I was scared a lot, because of all the crowd around and lost, because this is the first time. I’m excited and proud to be representing my country, unfortunately I lost, but hopefully I’ll do better next time. Hopefully I’ll achieve a medal next time. I am very excited and it was the opportunity of a lifetime, certainly the Saudi Arabia judo federation are delighted that I’ve been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also. Hopefully this is the begin of a new era.’
Dual Saudi-American citizen Sarah Attar, 19, had trained at California’s Pepperdine University not as a sprinter, but as a long distance runner. So it came as little surprise that the teenage track athlete immediately lagged behind when competing against the fastest runners in the world in the 800-metre race on Wednesday. Sarah finished last with a time of 2 minutes, 44.95 seconds – 43 seconds behind the winner.
Despite their performances, supportive crowds gave the two women roaring standing ovations. Much of the world recognises that, for these teenage Olympians, their acts of competing were more important than winning a medal.
Women sticking to their right to wear the hijab and still participate actively in life is a great thing
In the fleeting moments of their appearances, the young athletes have carved their names in Olympic history as the first women to represent Saudi Arabia on the world’s largest sporting stage. Wojdan also became the first judoka to fight in the Olympics wearing a hijab – an achievement that shouldn’t be dismissed, considering the controversy surrounding the issue in the preceding days. Only a few weeks before, little was known about the daughter of international judo referee Ali Shahrkhani. In the last couple of weeks, however, Wojdan’s name has hit scores of international headlines when a sudden ban on hijabs nearly forced her to withdraw. A compromise was eventually reached among the International Judo Federation, the International Olympic Committee and Saudi officials to allow Wojdan to compete in the +78kg category wearing a tight black cap that resembled a modified hijab. Support for Wojdan poured in from around the world both before and after the compromise was reached.
Ayesha Asad of Dubai wrote in a letter to the National: ‘As a professional woman who wears the hijab and wants the world to accept me for my competence (which is still an uphill task), I think this is really historic. Women sticking to their right to wear the hijab and still participate actively in life is a great thing.’
Even Wojdan’s opponent had kind words about her head cover. ‘There was no problem at all with the hijab,’ Melissa said. ‘I think everyone has a right to their religion and to be given an opportunity. This is no problem in judo.’
When she returns to Saudi Arabia, however, Wojdan will have to face the harsh reality back home, where hardliners regard her tumultuous journey to the London Games as nothing short of shameful. In a country in which women’s participation in sport barely exists, many Saudi conservatives consider the modest steps of Wojdan and Sarah to be religious heresy. ‘You do not represent the chaste Muslim woman,’ tweeted a university lecturer from Wojdan’s hometown. A few hostile remarks on social media sites even went as far as calling the women ‘prostitutes’. Wojdan’s father has reportedly collected copies of these nasty comments and hired a lawyer to sue the people behind the insults.
The criticism notwithstanding, for many other Saudis and millions of men and women around the world, Wojdan and Sarah represent a glimmer of hope in the slow evolution of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Saudi activist Rasha al-Duwaisi said that she felt ‘insulted’ by the Saudi government’s stubbornness not to include women in the country’s Olympic delegation until the very last minute, but admitted to AP, ‘I’m proud of these two women on a personal level.’ Lina al-Maeena, the founder of a women’s basketball league in Jeddah, optimistically predicted that Saudi women would be allowed to train for the next Olympic Games. Dr Qanta Ahmed, author of a book about living and working in Saudi Arabia, remarked in The Daily Beast, ‘It is from this moment that the marathon toward broader change can finally begin.’ Qanta argued that it has become increasingly difficult for the kingdom to defend its restrictions on women, even in the name of Islam. Neighbouring countries Iran and Yemen already have women’s soccer teams, she pointed out, and in the early days of Islam, the Prophet fondly participated in playful races with his wife.
Wojdan and Sarah didn’t even come close to standing on the podium at this year’s Olympics. But these Olympians’ names will go down in history as a ripple of change in the struggle for Saudi women’s rights, as well as the larger issue of women’s rights the world over. Sarah put it best when she spoke to reporters after her race: ‘I really hope this can be the start of something amazing.’
World’s Youngest Mayor: 15-Year-Old Palestinian Girl in Global Snapshots
Hajj Pilgrimage Comes to a Close in Spirituality
Razia Jan: Restoring the Eyesight of Afghanistan in Global Snapshots
Making Habits of Post-Ramadhan Resolutions in Spirituality
Saudi’s First Domestic Violence Prevention Campaign in Global Snapshots
A Medley of Love for Rasulullah: Singapore Mawlid Festival in Spirituality