82 Seconds of History: Saudi Arabia's First Female Olympian Competes to Criticism and Acclaim
- Tuesday, August 07, 2012
On August 3, 2012, Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi woman to compete in the Olympics, igniting a firestorm of controversy over hijabs and headgear, not to mention ability and experience. Her first and only match lasted 82 seconds before she was soundly defeated by Puerto Rican opponent Melissa Mojica.
In a nation where women are routinely denied the most basic of rights, one can only imagine the struggle faced by female athletes. In Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to participate in sports of any kind, to attend PE classes at school or even to be present as spectators at a game. Naturally, the chances of Saudi women competing in the Olympics have always been slim. But this year, with the International Olympic Committee threatening to ban all Saudi athletes if women were not included in the team, Saudi Arabia began to cave.
After years of refusing to field female athletes, the strict Islamic country succumbed to international pressure and began a last-minute national search for Olympic-level athletes – ultimately discovering of course, that due to the fact that women are forbidden from competing in sports, they had none to offer.
Enter Wojdan Shaherkani. Trained privately by her father in judo, the 16-year-old girl had attained a blue belt in the sport – rendering her not one but two levels beneath her Olympic counterparts. Three weeks ahead of the Olympics, she was contacted and asked to represent her country. Shaherkani agreed to attend along with her father, who also acts as her trainer, and to compete as the first Saudi woman in the Olympics. Sarah Attar, an 800-meter runner who was born and raised in California, was the only other woman representing Saudi Arabia.
Neither Shaherkani or Attar were qualified to compete at an Olympic level, but entered their competitions under a clause that enables less-than-qualified athletes to compete in the name of broadening international participation.
For Shaherkani, however, getting cleared to compete proved to be another problem altogether. Shaherkani’s Muslim faith requires her to wear the hijab all the time, even while participating in judo. But the International Judo Federation informed her that wearing a head scarf during the match was unacceptable. The conflict stretched past the opening ceremony, during which Shaherkani and Attar walked behind the men representing Saudi Arabia – with Shaherkani still uncertain if she would be allowed to compete at all. "I need my daughter to play," Shaherkani’s father told reporters. "We are hoping to make new history for Saudi's women."
The hijab controversy was ultimately solved when the International Judo Committee and the International Olympic Committee were able to strike a “good balance between safety and cultural considerations,” according to their statement, with a form of headgear that appeared to be a safer alternative to the more constricting hijab.
Critics questioned from the start whether Shaherkani should be allowed to compete at the Olympic level, citing her lack of experience compared to other entrants in the field. And on Friday, Shaherkani herself appeared nervous as she approached the mat, adjusting her head covering as she eyed her opponent. Her first and only match, against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, lasted only a minute and 22 seconds.
The 16-year-old appeared stunned, and unsure of her next move. She was directed to bow toward her opponent, and afterward hurried back to her father, bursting into tears. "I was disturbed and afraid at the beginning," she explained later. "It was my first time in a big competition and there was a lot of pressure because of the hijab issue. I was not comfortable because I didn't have any experience of big events. It took its toll on me."
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