Saudis Greet Olympic First With More Shrugs Than Cheers
Winning was never the point. No one expected Wojdan Shaherkani, 16, the first female Saudi Olympian to compete, to pin her opponent.
The idea was to flip sexist attitudes in Saudi Arabia that prevent women from, among many other things, exercising in school and competing in organized sports.
Shaherkani’s judo match was over in 82 seconds Friday. In Saudi Arabia, the repercussions of her historic feat could last even less.
Conservative clerics remain -- no surprise -- unmoved. But even some feminists here are questioning the Olympic experiment. Some see the move as a groundbreaking precedent, others worry it is cynical public-relations salve that won’t change hearts, minds or gym regulations.
In London, Olympic officials praised the match as progress, and it was the first time every nation competing in the games included women. Yet in Saudi Arabia, even some Saudi women who openly challenge the status quo expressed ambivalence about Shaherkani’s feat; they praised her for her courage but criticized the expedience that got her to that Olympic mat in London without a black belt or any competition experience.
“This is not a step forward for women’s rights,” Aziza al-Yousef, a computer science professor who is a leader in the Saudi women’s right-to-drive movement, said in her house in Riyadh. “We’ve been asking for girls to play sports in school for years; here they give Saudi women a spot in the Olympics, but not the right to earn a place on the team. This doesn’t add anything, and it won’t change anything.”
Lina al-Maeena, the founder of a women’s basketball league in Jeddah, said she believed that even a symbolic gesture could lead to improvement and predicted that Saudi women would be allowed to train for the next Olympic Games. “These moments break down stereotypes,” she said. “I can see the other side of the argument, but I choose to focus on the positive. American women had to struggle in the 1970s for equal opportunity, and that’s where we are now.”
Nobody thinks the Saudi Olympic committee is in a hurry to break down barriers.
Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, a Pepperdine University student who has dual citizenship and will run in the 800 meters, were included only after the International Olympic Committee threatened to bar all Saudi athletes if the team did not include women. Brunei and Qatar, which had also barred female athletes in past Olympics, were quick to give in to the IOC’s arm-twisting. Saudi resistance gave the story more zest overseas.
Western news-media outlets gave the brief judo match live -- and lively -- coverage. So did many Arab ones. The Saudi news media was much more subdued. Timing was part of it. The Olympics coincide with Ramadan, a monthlong religious holiday of prayer and fasting, and Shaherkani began her competition not long after the midday call to prayer. The elimination match in the 172-pound-plus category was shown live on at least one Al-Jazeera sports channel and on the Internet, but it went unnoticed on major Saudi television news programs, which focused on Ramadan prayer in Mecca and the strife in Syria.
Mostly, Olympic coverage was left to Twitter, which is uncensored in Saudi Arabia. For the days leading to the match, cyber chatter obsessed on whether Shaherkani would be allowed to compete in a traditional hijab head dress (she was). Then Twitter wags bet on what kind of hijab she would wear. She chose a tight black cap that covered her ears but not her neck and did not mollify her most exacting critics.
As soon as the match against Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico, 28, and a black belt, was over, Twitter comments turned more earnest. Some expressed pride, others prejudice. “Wijdan, you don’t represent my mother, sister, wife, or virtuous Muslim and Saudi Women,” one man wrote. “May god never forgive whoever allowed you to tarnish the reputation of the people you lived amongst.”
A woman praised her dedication to faith over sport: “History will not write her down as the first female Saudi athlete in the Olympics, but as the first woman to impose hijab in judo.”
But there was no last-minute viewing frenzy for the match itself.
Even Yousef, the professor, was not planning to watch it live -- she agreed to allow a visitor to come and watch it with her. Watching the screen, she grew intent and rooted for Shaherkani, but her mind was not changed.
Rasha al-Duwaisi, a friend and fellow activist, was watching at her side and shared her misgivings. “I’m proud of these two women on a personal level, but I’m a little insulted by the whole process,” Duwaisi said. “What I want is my basic rights. Instead we are given a luxury we didn’t ask for.” She saw it as a small, selfish step for men, not mankind. “The government didn’t choose to do it,” she said. “It was forced to, in order to give men what they want.”
Yousef said she respected the IOC for standing its ground on behalf of Saudi women. With a smile, she suggested that what was needed next was a Lysistrata strategy for Saudi men’s other passion -- cars. “I wish the auto industry would unite,” she said, “and decree that no cars will be exported to Saudi Arabia until women can drive them, too.”