As Wojdan Shaherkani stepped onto the mat Friday morning at London’s Excel Center, she was greeted by a cheering crowd that was eager to watch the girl perform.
Ms. Shaherkani's Olympic debut was brief – the match only lasted around 80 seconds before her opponent struck her to the floor – but she made history today as the first Saudi female athlete ever to compete under the Saudi flag. The London Games are the first to host women’s teams from all participating countries.
But this story is about more than one brave girl making feminists proud. Shaherkani’s participation marks the defeat of religious hardliners in Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom moves slowly toward more openness and social inclusion. Her presence at the Olympics – in her white judo outfit and modified hijab head covering – is testimony to the slow reforms Saudi King Abdullah has been supporting to manage political and social change in the Kingdom. In the last year, he has granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections as of 2015 and guaranteed their full inclusion in the Shura council in 2013.
Mounting fears for a Saudi version of the Arab Spring, however, nearly prevented the House of Saud from embracing another opportunity for reform. In what appeared to be months of negotiations with the International Olympic Committee, the Wall Street Journal reported, officials agreed to allow female participation only in the final days before the Olympics opening ceremony.
It was a victory for the young teenager, but more difficulties would confront Shaherkani down the road.
When the International Judo Federation informed Shaherkani, on her arrival in London, that she could not compete with a head scarf for safety reasons, her participation again seemed uncertain. Saudi Olympic officials eventually compromised on something resembling a swimming cap that allowed her to respect her religious beliefs and comply with rules back home in competition.
Her father, an international judo referee, proudly coached his daughter to obtain a blue belt in defiance of religious doctrine and conservative critics back home. Shaherkani voiced her determination to join the growing cohort of Saudi women who dare to stand up against male oppression.
“I am happy to be at the Olympics,” she told reporters. “Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will, and I will be a star for women’s participation.”
A number of progressive activists in the country expressed their jubilant support for the girl’s performance on various social media platforms, but were countered by sexist slurs and derisive commentary.
Giving hope to dreams
Her personal victory gives hope to women dreaming of a career in sports and better facilities, but also sends a message to young women that gender barriers are slowly being lowered.
Her achievement encourages clandestine soccer and basketball players – who are forced to train and compete underground – to continue their battle against the religious establishment. Female sports teams are not specifically banned under Saudi law, but they are also not sponsored by the Saudi state, and are left to fend for themselves in a culture that frowns on women's participation in public activities such as sports and politics. Gaining recognition among international players is hard.
“[Shaherkani] didn’t lose because she was no good," one Saudi-born blogger tweeted, "rather because the #Saudi gov. don’t even have sports facilities for young women to do sport!”
Nour Baghdady, a Saudi student who played on a female basketball team in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, remembers her team had to be creative when it first started practicing. “Our coach had to teach herself how to perform technical moves with NBA videos downloaded from the Internet.”
In a country where women’s education is deemed of secondary importance, sports are a way of acquiring skills that professors neglect to teach. The notoriously poor quality of most Saudi universities -- whose curriculums are carefully monitored for their adherence to the teachings of the Quran – deprives many women from a fulfilling college experience.
“But being a member of a sports team and working toward a common goal gave me a taste of college life,” Ms. Baghdady says.