LONDON — Clad in a white judo uniform and snug, black headcovering, 16-year-old Wojdan Shaherkani stepped onto a judo mat here Friday to enthusiastic applause after being introduced as “the first woman ever from Saudi Arabia!”
Eighty-two seconds into her competition, Shaherkani’s Olympics ended in defeat; the repercussions of her participation may be far more wide-reaching. As the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in an Olympic Games in any sport, she has been vilified by some and quietly cheered by others in her country.
Following her loss to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, Shaherkani declined to address the throng of reporters who jostled and shoved to get within earshot of whatever she might say. Later, in a more controlled setting, Shaherkani said she hoped her participation would signal “a new era.” She also said the large crowd had scared her, as had the pressure of competing publicly for the first time.
“I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shaherkani said, according to translated quotes provided by Olympic officials. “Certainly the Saudi judo federation are delighted that I’ve been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also. Hopefully this is the begin [sic] of a new era.”
Shaherkani is far from a typical Olympian. She had never traveled outside Saudi Arabia before coming to London. She had never competed publicly, taught the sport by her father, a judoka and judo official himself, in the privacy of their home.
And after marching in the Games’ Opening Ceremonies several paces behind Saudi Arabia’s male athletes, Shaherkani disappeared from view, training in an undisclosed location with her father and brother, forbidden from mixing with men during her time at the Games.
The mere idea of her participation outraged hard-line clerics and conservatives in the Islamic kingdom. Numerous online posts reportedly refer to her as “an Olympic whore.”
It was clear from the outset of Friday’s match that Shaherkani, a home-schooled blue belt, wasn’t sufficiently skilled to compete against Olympic black belts.
“I think she have talent, but she is not prepared for that kind of competition,” said Poland’s Urszula Sadkowska, 28, who has trained for 16 years. “It’s good she is here. But it’s too small preparation.”
Mojica, her opponent, said she sensed insecurity in their brief match. “I didn’t make her any favors, but I waited for the right moment,” Mojica said of her winning move.
Shaherkani’s participation in London, along with that of fellow Saudi Sarah Attar, a U.S.-based runner who’ll compete in the 800 meters next week, has been hailed as a diplomatic coup by the International Olympic Committee, which pressed all competing nations to include at least one woman on their teams.
The three that had historically refused — Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar — relented.
But on the eve of the Games, Shaherkani’s participation was thrown into jeopardy anew when the International Judo Federation announced that she couldn’t compete wearing a hijab, or headscarf, citing safety concerns.
Shaherkani’s father made clear that his daughter would withdraw from the Games before removing her headscarf, which is required of Saudi women, along with clothing that covers their arms and legs. Moreover, women aren’t allowed to attend sporting events in Saudi Arabia, much less play sports in public. And girls are barred from physical education in government schools.
A compromise over the issue of headgear was brokered, resulting in the black skullcap Shaherkani wore Friday.
It wasn’t the only accommodation made to achieve the “gender equity” that International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge had sought for the 2012 Games, the first in which women are competing in every sport contested by men.
Because Saudi women have no national or international ranking in sports, the IOC waived its normal Olympic-qualifying requirements and extended invitations for Saudi women to take part.
Still, despite her deficit in judo skills, Shaherkani’s comments revealed a fighter’s heart.
“I’m excited and proud to be representing my country,” she said. “Unfortunately, I lost. But hopefully I’ll do better next time. Hopefully I’ll achieve a medal next time.”
Still, it’s far from clear whether Shaherkani’s historic Olympic debut will rise above the symbolic.
“It is a step in the right direction,” said Christoph Wilcke, the senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from Jordan. “The question really is whether women in Saudi Arabia will be able to benefit from the symbolism.”
Wilcke is author of a comprehensive study on sports in Saudi Arabia that highlights the adverse health consequences of denying girls and women the chance to participate. Released earlier this year, the report challenged the IOC on human-rights grounds to pressure Saudi Arabia to live up to the Olympic Charter and include female athletes in their delegation as condition of taking part in the 2012 Games.
The Olympic Charter states that “the practice of sports is a human right, without discrimination of any kind.”
“I don’t see at present a sign that the Saudi government is opening up sport for women,” Wilcke said. “But nevertheless we now have in this a formal Saudi position that women and sports are not incompatible. And I expect Saudi women will take this up in the future when they want to hold tournaments and play games and remind the Saudi government that there is a precedent.
“I think it’s important. It is an official statement of policy breaking an old taboo.”
Said Christopher Sherrington, 28, who competes as a member of Britain’s Armed Forces: “The first time I spotted her, she had the headgear on, and I said, ‘Oh, there’s the Saudi girl!’ Great for them to come in! And great for them to fight! The more women, the merrier!”
Champions are built in incremental steps, not overnight. Social change comes about much the same way. And Shaherkani’s fellow Olympians cheered her effort.
“I admire her for coming from that country and having the courage to compete,” Mojica said. “I didn’t feel pity for her. I felt a lot of respect.”
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