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Saudi Olympic athlete hit by judo head scarf ban: Safety or discrimination? (+video)

For the first time, Saudi Arabia sent women athletes to the Olympics, but now judo officials say one can't compete with a head scarf, citing safety concerns.

By Staff writer / July 27, 2012

An Olympic judo hopeful trains in Peja in Kosovo, May 29. Since judo involves clutching of clothes and choke holds, it has outlawed the wearing of headscarves.

Hazir Reka/Reuters/File

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London

One day after a female Saudi Arabian judo player arrived in London – under strict instructions from national Olympic officials to compete "wearing suitable clothing" that complies with Islamic custom – the International Judo Federation banned the wearing of head scarves Thursday. 

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Saudi Arabian judo player arrived in London hit by head scarf ban.

The move was made for safety reasons, said Nicolas Messner, a federation spokesman. Judo involves grabbing opponents' clothing and using choke holds, making the head scarf – or hijab – "dangerous," he added.

Messner told the Associated Press that negotiations are ongoing with the Saudi Arabian delegation to find a compromise. But neither the Saudis nor the athlete, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, has yet made a statement about whether she will compete. She and Sarah Attar – a middle-distance runner who grew up in California but has dual citizenship – are the first two women ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had to lobby hard to persuade Saudi Arabia to send them.

For the first time in Olympic history, all 205 nations have sent both men and women to the Summer Games. 

The decision is sure to stoke controversy. The IOC is determined to promote women's sport in Islamic countries, where most sporting authorities refuse to let women participate without a hijab. Moreover, other sporting federations, including those overseeing international soccer, taekwondo, and even rugby, allow for hijabs. Advocates say new, tear-away sport hijabs fastened by Velcro eliminate the threat of injuries.

But some in the judo community say their sport is a unique case. The judo robe, or judogi, is central to the sport, both as tradition and as an element of the competition. Many moves involve clutching an opponent's judogi in order to throw her. Women are allowed to wear a T-shirt under their judogi, but adding a head scarf is different, say some.

"It was always going to be a no-no here," said Stewart Brain, head coach of the Australian judo team, to the Sydney Morning-Herald. Because it's up around the neck," he said, "you could get your finger in there and tear it off." 

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