Today in the ExCel centre history will be made, not for a world record, not for a gold medal, but for 16 year old Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani who will become the first ever Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympic Games. After the controversy surrounding Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward women competing in sport and then around Shaherkani herself and hijab-gate earlier this week, all eyes will on her as she takes to the Judo mat (tatami) against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica.
Although this is an amazing achievement and huge step for women’s sport in Arab nations, I’m worried for Shaherkani. Saudia Arabia strongly disagrees with the idea of women playing sport, at least not in public where they may be seen. Physical Education isn’t on the curriculum for girls in Public schools and Private schools are ‘discouraged’ from teaching it also. The rationale behind this entire ruling is that, by playing sport, women will end up with corrupt morals, as well as damage to their healthy and psyche. Not only that but sport may encourage lesbianism and is just too damn unfeminine. Unsurprisingly then this means there are no competitive events for girls, no chance to play against other teams and certainly no opportunity to see how good you are compared to others in the big wide world. Shaherkani is only a blue belt and coached in private by her father, achieving her place in the games through an official invitation from the IOC. She is below Olympic qualifying standards and has not competed at this level due to Saudi Arabia’s no existent national competitions. I’m just worried that up against a seasoned athlete like Mojica this teenager could end up injured. I am 100% behind women being represented in all corners of the globe, but not if it greatly puts them at risk.
One of the conditions of Shaherkani and her team mate, 19 year old Sarah Attar being allowed to attend the game is that they need to dress modestly at all times (as well as have a male guardian with them 24/7, maybe to protect them from all those other morally corrupt, lesbian athletes?) This is all good and well, but that means Shaherkani will be expected to compete in her hijab. Now I’ve never attempted judo, but can imagine that wearing something to cover my head, regardless of how used I was to it, would hinder my performance by getting in my way or possibly even providing my opponent with something else to grab on to. Similarly Attar will have to run in an outfit that complies with Islamic law which will add seconds to her time when compared with the lycra aero dynamic kit of her fellow competitors.
When Saudi Arabia finally relented and agreed to send a mixed squad to London for the Games this year, they did not pick their best or strongest athletes. Although Shaherkani and Attar’s participation in the 2012 Olympics is a ground breaking day for Saudi Arabian women and, along with female first timers Brunei and Qatar has meant that London 2012 is the first Olympic games to have every country represented by both men and women, I cannot help feeling that it is a half-hearted gesture from Saudi. By sending women to the games they have complied with IOC regulations and avoided exclusion, but by sending under qualified athletes and insisting they over dress the country obviously do not take female medal chances seriously. Women may finally be allowed to play at the games, but Saudia Arabia is a very long way away from celebrating any of their achievements.
Image from http://www.cbc.ca/olympics/ (thanks)