Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Saudi Women at the Olympics

by Isobel Coleman
August 9, 2012

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar runs in her women's 800 meter round 1 heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Lucy Nicholson). Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar runs in her women's 800-meter round 1 heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012 (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters).


Just before the Olympics started, I wrote about how for the first time ever, each participating country was sending at least one female competitor to the Games. The participation of two Saudi Arabian women was particularly groundbreaking: until the eleventh hour, it looked as if the Saudi government would not allow them to compete. Now, as the end of the Games approaches, these women have won symbolic victories, though not without struggle and controversy.

Just sixteen years-old, Saudi Arabia’s judo athlete Wojdan Shaherkani last week officially became the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to compete in the Olympics. Although she lost quickly to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, a twenty-eight year-old ranked thirteenth worldwide, she was cheered by a supportive crowd. Shaherkani’s time at the Olympics was also marked by debate over her attire. The Saudi government required her to wear a head covering, which judo’s official rules, grounded in concern for athletes’ safety, would not allow. Eventually, Shaherkani was permitted to wear a head covering that looks like a swim cap in the match.

Saudi Arabia’s other female athlete, the nineteen year-old runner Sarah Attar, a dual Saudi and American citizen, had an unremarkable finishing time in the 800-meter race, but the audience rose to its feet and cheered anyway, recognizing the symbolic value of her participation. As a U.S. runner who shares Attar’s coach noted, “She carried the weight of Saudi Arabia’s women on her shoulders.” Attar’s comments after the race were very brief, raising questions of whether she had received instructions not to speak with the press.

While many Olympic athletes attract criticism and praise based on their personal characteristic instead of their athletic performance, Saudi Arabia’s female athletes get more scrutiny than most due to their country’s deep social conservatism. On Twitter in Saudi Arabia, Attar and Shaherkani’s Olympic participation has generated hateful comments. One Twitter user, apparently a Saudi Arabian man, started a hash tag calling Saudi Arabia’s female competitors “prostitutes of the Olympics,” sparking both support and ire. For instance, a lecturer at a Saudi university reportedly tweeted that “You [Shaherkani] do not represent the chaste Muslim women.” Other comments on Twitter about Shaherkani’s judo participation have been so offensive that her father is trying to sue the Saudi Tweeters. (Good luck to him.)

These comments are a sobering, though not unexpected, reminder of the harsh attitudes and social constraints that female athletes in Saudi Arabia are up against.

But the reactions of other Saudis, men included, range from supportive to ecstatic. As the AP reported about the reaction to Shaherkani’s quick defeat, “A Saudi-born man who has a blog called Saudi Root wrote, ‘I’ll walk out later with the Saudi flag around my neck and my head up high as if we won the biggest gold medal in the history of the Olympics.’”

Speaking to the debate over Shaherkani’s headscarf, a star (male) Saudi Arabian soccer player declared, “I believe that women can represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics…and that they can represent the Kingdom well. Yes, of course, there are problems with the headscarf in sports, but we have to find a solution that is acceptable for both parties.”

As I discussed in my previous blog about women at the Olympics, Shaherkani and Attar are participating in the Olympics this year because of a special wildcard invitation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC)—they did not qualify to be in the Olympics on their own merits. In a comment on my blog post and in other venues, people have questioned the value of wildcard invitations. If these women cannot compete at Olympic standards, why are they are invited to participate? How does this further the cause of women in sports?

As another commenter on the blog noted—and as I agree—the IOC has an admirable tradition of extending Olympic invitations to increase the presence of athletes from underrepresented countries. One of the more famous wildcard athletes is Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea, who competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney despite having only swum in a river and a hotel pool before the Games. He had a challenging race, to say the least, but is now Equatorial Guinea’s national swimming coach and dreams of entering the 2016 Olympics—an affirmation of the kind of interest and enthusiasm that a wildcard invitation can generate.

Indeed, as the saying goes, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” In the past two weeks, girls in Saudi Arabia have gone from having virtually zero athletic role models to seeing crowds give standing ovations for their female Olympic competitors. I have to believe that this will help build some momentum back home for allowing young girls to participate in sports at school. That would be real progress for Saudi women.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Charlotte

    I had hoped they would win just to rub it in the faces of the men in SA. I don’t think I could have ran and gotten good time in those outfits. Why not just put weights on them? I hope it does create progress because if a country allows 50% of it’s resources to go to waste they will lose valuable things. And a country that oppresses women will in the end lose,.

  • Posted by Roger Phillips

    This is a very small start for Saudi women but possibly an important one. A culture that considers women as “Too holy” to be seen and to be used only for breeding babies–hopefully sons–is just not living in reality and is truly an evil one. At least these women did show their faces. Seeing veiled women in the US is truly creepy and the veil should be made illegal here. If a woman is the property of the man (in their belief) then she should stay inside the home–show us your face in public. Are these man so animalistic that the sight of a woman’s hair, arm, or leg will drive them to a heated desire to commit rape? If so, the problem is with the man and not the woman.
    Again this is truly a hateful belief and animals are better treated than Saudi women.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    A victory for women and a victory for compromise. No doubt safety issues are important and head covering interferes with that but a solution can be found, if there is a willingness to see other’s point. Special head coverings can be designed which do not compromise athlete safety or rules can be changed as FIFA did, although too late for Iranian women football team.

    We have to recognize that if on one side there are fanatics religious fundamentalists who wouldn’t allow women to even drive, on the other side there are people who have a visceral hatred for Islam or religion in general and do not want to give an inch to Islam or Muslim concerns, even if it delays Muslim women development.

  • Posted by Rene Chang

    I wish people would leave the Saudi’s women to promote their own emancipation. It is so easy for Western women, through good intention to prescribe for the Saudi women.

    While I support Saudiwomen’s emancipation, I would not prescribe an agenda for them. Any emancipation has to be wonmy their own struggle. At least they do not have to imprisoned, forcefed or killed like th suffregettes in the UK.
    Women in the UK achieved the vote some 300 years after the industrial revolution. Saudi Arabia industrialised only 80 years ago.
    Read my experience living nd working among the Saudi’s for 10 years – Scalpel in the Sand – ISBN 9780956911902

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