Saudi Arabia’s judoka strikes blow for women’s rights at Olympics

Posted on August 3, 2012

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Source: The Guardian 

by Esther Addley

Wojdan Shaherkani has become the first Saudi woman to compete at the Games in London

Wojdan Shaherkani

Saudi Arabia’s Wojdan Shaherkani has struck a blow for gender equality at the Olympics. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

A 16-year-old girl who has never before competed in an international competition has struck a blow for gender equality, becoming the first woman ever to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games.

The Saudi judo player Wojdan Shaherkani has been at the centre of an international storm over the inclusion of female athletes from the kingdom in the Games, with the country’s ruling authorities seeking to block any women from competing.

Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia backed down three weeks ago, only for Shaherkani’s participation to be thrown once again into doubt after the international judo federation ruled that she would not be permitted to wear a head covering on safety grounds.

That decision was rescinded only on Tuesday after a compromise was hammered out allowing her to wear a “safety cap”, meaning that Shaherkani took part in the opening ceremony – walking behind the male athletes from her country – not knowing whether she would be able to compete.

Shaherkani, who is coached privately by her father, was greeted by a roar as her bout in the 78kg category was announced, entering the arena wearing a neat black skullcap over her head. She was defeated in only a few minutes by Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico, appearing hesitant and unsure in her brief appearance. She left the mat without bowing, having to be reminded to turn and comply with judo protocol.

A second Saudi Arabian woman, Sarah Attar, will compete in the 800m from 8 August. Attar has dual US-Saudi Arabian citizenship and is based in California.

Neither woman reached the qualifying standard for participation in the Games, being admitted under an IOC waiver system designed to encourage participation in under-represented countries.

Physical education for girls is barred in Saudi Arabian schools, and women are not permitted to join or even enter sports clubs as spectators, let alone play.

Shaherkani and Attar have been the subject of intense controversy and the recipients of personal abuse over their participation, being denounced as “Olympic whores” on the internet.

London is the first Games in which every competing country will field at least one female athlete; Qatar and Brunei also have women athletes competing for the first time. As recently as 1996 at the Atlanta Games, 26 countries had no women participants.

Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, has described Shahrkhani as “a symbol”, declaring during the opening ceremony: “For the first time in Olympic history, all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality.”

Women will also compete in all 26 sports at for the first time, although in 30 fewer events than men.

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