Women to Watch in London 2012: Sarah Attar

Your feminist-friendly guide to the women of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. This week, one of the first women to ever represent Saudi Arabia: Sarah Attar.

Country: Saudi Arabia. Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani will be the first women ever to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, after the International Olympic Committee insisted that no Saudi Arabian men would be allowed to compete unless the country also fielded women (the same applied to Brunei and Qatar, based on the Olympic Charter’s commitment to equality).

Sport: 800m sprint.

Video still close-up of Sarah Attar, on a running track , wearing grey headscarf and smiling
Screencap from the IOC interview with Sarah Attar

Likely to win: nothing – Attar is unlikely to get out of the qualifying round.  She’s a full-time college student who usually runs much longer distances, 1500km and 3000km, with her college running club. Her personal best is 2:40, 47 seconds slower than the world record.

Other reasons she’s interesting: Sarah is a dual citizen of the USA and Saudi Arabia; her father is from Saudi Arabia, but Sarah herself has grown up in the U.S. and goes to college in California. That’s the reason she is able to compete, as women’s participation in sport is prohibited at almost all levels in Saudi Arabia:

Women aren’t even allowed inside these [sports] clubs or be spectators at stadiums. Female physical education is not permitted in public schools, so the only way a Saudi woman can practice any type of competitive sport is through expensive private schools or colleges, and health clubs. But these organizations are prohibited from publicizing their rare activities, and women’s teams of any sort are discouraged from publicly stating their affiliation with any institution”¦

A recurring theme”¦ is that physical activity for women is not Islamically prohibited per se, but that it leads to issues that are”¦ athletics will corrupt Saudi women by leading to lesbianism, disruption of the menstrual cycle, hymen tearing, loss of femininity, and Westernization. – Eman al Nafjan

Despite this, Sarah is aware of the historic importance of her participation, but also shows how different her perspective from those of most Saudi women:

A big inspiration for participating in the 2012 Olympics, for me, is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going. It’s such a huge honour, and I hope that it can really make some strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport”¦ To any women who want to participate I say go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back.

Sarah received a wild card entry to the Olympics, after the woman thought most likely to compete for Saudi Arabia, Youth Olympics bronze medalist and showjumper Dalma Rushdi Malhaswithdrew after her horse suffered a back injury.

There is ongoing uncertainty over whether Sarah’s teammate, heavyweight judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, will compete at all, as the International Judo Federation has told her she cannot compete while wearing hijab – citing safety reasons. However, hijab is permitted in the Asian judo federation, and and it seems odd – if not downright discriminatory – to cite “safety,” when her relative inexperience (she’s only been training for two years and does not have a black belt) somehow isn’t a safety concern. The president of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, insists that they will not allow Shaherkani to compete in clothing that does not comply with sharia. Sigh.

Since her participation has been made public, Sarah has been photographed training in sharia-compliant clothes and photos of her in typical U.S. clothing have been removed from her college’s website, at her family’s request. Given that many Saudi Arabians do not support women’s participation in sport, this isn’t surprising:

a Saudi Twitter user allegedly called Sultan Al Hilali spread the hash tag #عاهرات_الاولمبياد which translates to The Prostitutes of the OlympicsAmira al Hussaini

No one really thinks that Attar’s participation indicates a real commitment by Saudi Arabia to women’s sport:

There’s no getting around the fact that Saudi Arabia is allowing these two women to compete only to avoid being barred entirely from the Olympics, while simultaneously trying to erase any suggestion within the kingdom that this represents a breakthrough in gender equality.Eman al Nafjan

yet the hope remains that this gesture can be used to leverage pressure for women’s rights in one of the most anti-equality countries in the world:

…if Saudi Arabia truly wants to “go for gold” this summer, it should lift all restrictions on women’s basic freedoms. Permitting two women to aim for their Olympic dreams is a start, but let’s not stop until women can freely pursue their own dreams”¦ whatever they may be.Cristina M. Finch, Amnesty International USA.

Watch her: 8th August at 11: 35 a.m. Hopefully in the future Saudi Arabian women will be able to look back and see her participation, though symbolic, as the start of something bigger and better for them.


Other Women to Watch and When (all times GMT):

Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi (Malaysia,10m air rifle) came 34th out of 56 is the 10m air rifle on Saturday, fielding a few silly questions along the way.

Amantle Montsho (Botswana, 400m sprint): 12pm on Friday 3rd August; hopefully followed by the semi-finals the next day at 8:05 p.m., and the finals on Sunday 5th at 9:1o p.m.

Katie Taylor (Ireland, boxing): Monday 6th August in the quarter-finals; and hopefully in the semi-finals on the 8th and finals on the 9th.

Maya Nakanishi (Japan, 100m sprint, 200m sprint, and long jump – T44 category):  Saturday 1st September at 9:41 p.m. for Round 1 of the 100m.

Sources:,,,,, International Olympic, London2012.comNY Times, theAtlantic.comtheAtlanticWire.comYahoo Sports.

2 replies on “Women to Watch in London 2012: Sarah Attar”

Yes. At the same time, people-as-symbols can, I think, give the activists who are doing the hard work something concrete to aim for and showing up opponents. (I’m thinking particularly of the British suffragettes as a historical comparison). I hope so, at least.

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