Saudi Arabia and the Olympics: A Hesitant Step Forward

The 2012 Olympics are finally making sex equality a priority. For the first time in the history of the games, the International Olympic Council put pressure on every country to bring female delegates to compete. And it worked! The last three holdouts from the Beijing games in 2008–Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia–succumbed to international leaning and submitted female athletes. Saudi Arabia was the last holdout. It took being threatened to be ousted from the Olympics for them to finally agree to send women–two women, in fact. Sarah Attah will be running the 800-meter, and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will be competing in Judo. Or, at least, she may be.

It was announced on Thursday, July 26 that Shahrkhani would not be permitted to wear a headscarf while competing in Judo. It is now uncertain whether or not she will be competing pending further negotiations between the IOC and the Saudi Arabian Olympic Council.

In Judo, a headscarf could be both a safety hazard and a competitive advantage. Because head and neck holds are an integral part of Judo competition, a headscarf would allow a competitor to slip out of holds more easily. It could also cause a significant choking hazard. The Judo Federation’s decision makes sense, but the Saudis are fighting hard against it.

They say that women competing in the Olympics still have to comply with Sharia law by wearing head-covering garb, having a male guardian and not socializing with men during their competition. In the Parade of Nations during the Olympic opening ceremonies, the two Saudi women were walking far behind the male Saudi athletes and were wearing full hijab.

It appears that Shahrkhani has not had access to the press, as there are no quotes from her discussing how she feels about this decision. Despite speculation about whether or not she would prefer to have her head covered during competition, it is impossible to know for sure. Only quotes from the Saudi Olympic Council on this matter have been publicized.

Additionally, on July 29th, Shahrkhani’s father was quoted in the Saudi Arabian al-Watan newspaper as saying his daughter will not compete if she is not permitted to wear her hijab. Still no word from the athlete herself, and whether or not the decision put forth by her father is her own.

Many in Saudi Arabia have not reacted well to Saudi women participating in the games, as well.  After the opening ceremonies were aired yesterday, Reuters reported that there were several reactions from Saudis on Twitter under the hashtag “Olympic_whores”. One Twitter user speculated that the female runner only wanted to run so that she could “intentionally fall down and reveal [her figure].” Many other users on Twitter referred to the female Olympic participation as “shameful” and “a great sin.”

It is legitimate to be concerned for the safety of these women, especially Shahrkhani, once the games are over and they return to their home country.

Hopefully the Saudis and the IOC can come to an agreement before Shahrkhani is slated to compete on Friday, August 3rd. Though women should be able to choose how they dress and observe religious and ethnic tradition, standards of safety and fairness in the Olympics are highly important. Women should also not be pressured or coerced into modesty by any governing body. Perhaps these negotiations can be a step towards better sex equity in international competition. If this can shed light on the ideas and mores that must be examined and adjusted to move towards equality for women, in international sport and in Saudi Arabia, this could be a truly great Olympics.

UPDATE: It was decided on Tuesday, after this piece was submitted, that Shahrkhani will be allowed to wear her headscarf. ~ed.

One thought on “Saudi Arabia and the Olympics: A Hesitant Step Forward”

  1. Um. Actually, she’s competed at some of the biggest competitions in her sports with the Hijab before. It’s not the traditional Hijab, but one designed for being worn in her sport. While the runner didn’t always cover, this woman appears to have. Her Hijab set up was approved as safe by the authoritative board that governs Judo as a sport outside of the Olympics.

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