The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In conservative Saudi Arabia, 2012 Olympian Sarah Attar sees rumblings of change

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia enters the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics on July 27, 2012. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

During his childhood in Saudi Arabia, Amer Attar would see a peculiar thing on TV sometimes: women, from other lands, competing in sports.

“You just watch other countries do it on TV,” he said. “You know, early on, maybe, it looks different, but people say, ‘Oh, that’s the West.’ You kind of separate yourself from it. You separate your culture from it. Because you could never think that our women could do that, our girls doing that kind of thing.”

He then went to college in the United States, married his American wife, Judy, in 1984, and coached his two daughters (and one son) in soccer in California. Then, remarkably, at the 2012 Olympics in London, he witnessed his middle child, Sarah Attar, a middle-distance runner at Pepperdine University, represent Saudi Arabia in the 800 meters.

With Saudi Arabia and Qatar among the last countries to add female athletes to their Olympics contingents, Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judoka, broke the ground and ignored the odd social-media denigration as best they could. In turn, on repeated visits to Saudi Arabia, the Attar family has noticed some rumblings of change in that most conservative of Middle Eastern lands.

A concept gaining acceptance: The Muslim female athlete

On a visit in 2011, as they tell it, Sarah wished to go for a run, so Amer helped her dress as if she were male and took her to a coastal road along the Jeddah Corniche. “She wore a cap and warmup pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and I said, ‘Just start running. I’ll drive next to you, and if you get harassed or something, we’ll do something,’ ” he said. “So she started running, and then, like, five minutes, 10 minutes . . .”

“It was literally, like, five minutes into the run,” Sarah said. “A car full of 20-something-year-old guys pulls up next to me and starts yelling at me. They were saying, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ You know, stuff like that. So then we were kind of done after that.”

By December 2015, though, Sarah and her sister ran in abayas, with Amer driving along again, when a police officer arrived — but only to ensure Amer wasn’t harassing the women. Moreover, the family relished Jeddah’s new walking paths. “And you’d never [see that before]. There was no place to do stuff like that,” Amer said, his eyes alive as he described “couples” and “women in their abayas.”

He said: “I even saw a guy with his, I think, looked like his wife, and they were holding hands and running together. And she was wearing the abaya, and she was covered up, but they were actually running.”

Sarah has discovered another fresh wrinkle: a group called the Saudi Running Collective. A founder, an expatriate named Rod, said it has 120 active members, 80 percent Saudi, with about eight Saudi females. Significantly, men and women (in abayas) run together. Rod, who spoke by telephone, asked that his last name not be published because of the unusual nature of the club in Saudi culture.

While women’s gyms have popped up, Rod said, “The concept of fitness is not completely embraced by society itself.” A running group, he said, is “something that’s unheard of.”

Some days they run in the desert, where no one sees them, and other days in the city. On one spring day as they stretched in the city, the police dropped by. “We were doing this pre-workout for the run,” Rod said. “These police came over. They said we were doing something attention-grabbing, that some people photographed our members stretching.” One Saudi male group leader wound up at the police station for six hours, until a lawyer could arrive and maintain the club had violated no laws.

“Of course, people are looking and staring, with females jumping up and down and running,” said Nesreen, a group member who likewise asked in a phone interview that only her first name appear. “We get looked at. Some people say it’s tough. But I’m not alone in this, and I get a lot of support, and when you love what you do, it doesn’t matter. This is the beginning of change. I love that I’m part of the movement, if you want to say. It’s very noble.”

A mother of four and a former “bad smoker” now in her early 40s, she said the group had transformed her life. “It gives me a great feeling of freedom, of accomplishment, of overcoming challenges, of overcoming objections,” she said. “When I’m running, I feel so empowered. I feel so strong. You know? You don’t think about anything when you’re running. Just finish it. Just finish it. I’ve been applying that to all the other aspects of my life — to projects, to relationships. I’m a much happier person.”

The path does look long. In January 2015, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach rejected emphatically a suggestion of Saudi Prince Fahad bin Jalawi Al Saud, who had said that Saudi Arabia might bid for an Olympics jointly with neighboring Bahrain so that women could compete separately in the latter country. Yet far nearer the ground, Sarah Attar recalled visiting a school in Jeddah to speak to Saudi schoolgirls.

The teacher asked how many girls would like to compete in an Olympics, as did Attar.

All the hands went up.

The rise of the female Muslim athlete:

Part 1: Once forbidden from sport, a new generation now chases Olympic glory.

Sarah Attar: A groundbreaking athlete sees change in her father's Saudi homeland.

Part 2: Marriage, motherhood, education, maybe sports

Jordanian sisters: A duo empowered by jiujitsu

Part 3:Competing while covered: The search for the sports hijab