Although she was defeated, it was clear that Wojdan Shaherkani felt some pride in being the first woman to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics. Given the challenges facing women in the hardline Islamic nation, her mere appearance was perceived by many – including Shaherkani herself – as a victory.

“I’m excited and proud to be representing my country,” she said later. “Unfortunately I lost, but I’ll do better next time.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most restrictive Islamic countries – a place where women are forbidden from driving, not to mention participating in sports of any kind. And while around the world the women’s presence at the games was largely praised as a leap forward, back home in Saudi Arabia was a different scene entirely. A Twitter hashtag referring to Attar and Shaherkani as “prostitutes” for entering the Olympic games gained popularity among hardline Islamists.

Other critics said that Shaherkani’s rushed Olympic debut hardly makes a difference for women’s rights on a day to day basis. For Aziza al-Yousef, a leader in calling for a woman’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, says that Shaherkani’s appearance at the games doesn’t prove anything. “We’ve been asking for girls to play sports in school for years,” she said. “Here they give Saudi women a spot in the Olympics, but not the right to earn a place on the team. This doesn’t add anything, and it won’t change anything.”

But for Shaherkani herself, the 82 seconds of her Olympic match were worth the struggle. “I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “Certainly the Saudi 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 beginning of a new era.”

Kristin WrightKristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at kristin@kristinwright.net.

Publication date: August 7, 2012