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August 06, 2012

Saudi Women Finally Ascend the Olympic Stage

By Rachel Morgan

This blog is part of the Olympics 2012 and Human Rights series.

Sarah Attar, 19 years old, Saudi Arabia. Event: 800m track event. Photo courtesy of Channel Guide Magazine.

This weekend Sarah Attar, a 19-year old runner from Saudi Arabia was the first female to run in the 800 meter track event for her country. She and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who participated in the 78 kg judo competition, are the two women are the first female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in Olympic history.

The world has celebrated Saudi Arabia’s compliance with IOC and international community pressure to include female athletes in its Olympic team. However, the conservative kingdom’s approval has not come free of restrictions. For example, when Sarah trains in San Diego or competes in track events for Pepperdine University, she does not wear the leggings, long sleeved shirt and headscarf in which she is pictured above. The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee has ordered that female participants’ attire must be in compliance with Sharia law throughout the competition, raising concerns that Attar will be at an automatic disadvantage to her more aerodynamically clad competitors.

 

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, 16 years old, Saudi Arabia. Event: 78kg Judo. Photo from Opening Ceremonies in London.

In addition, both women must be accompanied by a male guardian at all times and are prohibited from socializing with any men outside of their families. Such limits are indicative of the state of women’s rights within Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to travel, enroll in post-secondary educational institutions, or receive medical treatment without the consent of a male guardian. Saudi Arabia is also the only nation that prohibits women from driving.

Traditionally, the Olympics have come and gone in Saudi Arabia with very little attention.  However, the concession by an historically ultra-conservative government to allow female participation—widely speculated as a means to avoid an embarrassing ban from the IOC—has sparked a lot of resistance and backlash.  Social media sites have been the harshest. The Guardian reported that “both women were featured under an Arabic Twitter hashtag that translates as “Olympic whores.”  According to the Associated Press, Saudi state media refuses to release any coverage of these two women.

Even so, both women refuse to be intimidated.  Sarah, a dual American and Saudi citizen, has taken to promoting women in sports on her Facebook page.  Wodjan, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and was trained privately by her father, learned she would be able to participate in her hijab after judo officials deemed it was not a safety issue.  As these two women make Olympic history this month, here’s to positive change in the coming months and the continued expansion of women’s sports and rights in Saudi Arabia.