Photo Essay: First Saudi Female Athletes at the Olympics

After long negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and pressure from human rights groups, Saudi Arabia announced in the eleventh hour that they will be sending female athletes to the Olympic Games in London for the first time in the country’s history.

This was seen as a victory for the equality and the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, but before that it was a victory for the IOC who declared that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games.

The two athletes chosen to Saudi Arabia were Wojdan Shaherkhani, a 16-year-old judoka from Makkah; and Sarah Attar, a 19-year-old runner who holds dual citizenship for the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the Opening Ceremony, the two teenagers walked at the back of the delegation, dressed in traditional clothes. As they made their strides to follow their male counterparts, the girls waved Saudi flags and flashed victory signs with big smiles on their young faces.

On August 3, 2012, history was made. “In white,” the announcer declared, “the first woman ever from Saudi Arabia, Wojdan Shaherkani.” Accompanied by her father, an international judo judge himself, she stepped onto the red and yellow mat in the ExCel Center to compete at the +78kg judo event.

Wojdan was also making another first. It was the first time a judoka competes at the Olympics wearing the hijab. That hijab caused contention in the days leading to the competition. Saudi officials insisted that Wojdan would only compete wearing the hijab, while the International Judo Federation said hijab is not allowed for safety reasons. When the Saudis threatened they would pull out if she can’t wear hijab, a compromise was reached allowing her to cover her hair.

Faced with a far more experienced competitor, Wojdan did not last for too long on the mat. Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica needed only 82 seconds to defeat her young opponent. On Twitter, some Saudis who were against women’s participation mocked Wojdan, sometimes using ugly racial slurs. But many others said they are proud of her.

Wojdan’s father said he was going to sue people who insulted his daughter. He also said he had to pay all the expenses for his daughter’s participation. “No one at the Saudi Olympic Committee promised to reimburse me, and I don’t really care,” he said. “My daughter’s participation is the true honor.”

Sarah Attar

Five days later, it was the turn of Saudi Arabia’s second female athlete to make her appearance. Sarah Attar, born and raised in Escondido, CA. to a Saudi father and an American mother, took her place on the track of the Olympic Stadium to run in the 800m heat.

Wearing a white headscarf, a long sleeved green top and black leggings, a beaming Attar waved to the 80,000 spectators who filled the stadium. This was a new experience for the college student who goes to school and trains in San Diego.

Few seconds after the race began, it was clear that Sarah had no chance to win. Other athletes ran past her, but she kept running. She was the last to finish the race, but she received a standing ovation from the crowd as she crossed the finish line, clocking at 2 minutes and 44.95 seconds. Her name was trending worldwide on Twitter.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Sarah told reporters after the race. In an interview with the BBC, she said this was not about winning. “It was really about the cause being here … representing all the women over there” in Saudi Arabia.

From their living rooms, Saudi women watched with hope that what Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar did will be a meaningful step in the direction of changing women status in the country.

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End of Drama: Saudi to Send Women to Olympics

After much back and forth, Saudi Arabia will finally send two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. A runner and judoka will be representing the Kingdom in the London 2012 Games, the International Olympic Committee said.

"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

It almost did not happen.

On June 24, Saudi Arabia announced for the first time that it was going to allow female athletes to compete in the Olympics. According to the BBC, the decision came after secret meetings held earlier that month in Jeddah, where “a consensus was reached in mid-June between the king, the crown prince, the foreign minister, the leading religious cleric, the grand mufti and others, to overturn the ban” on women participation.

At the time, all eyes were on showjumper Dalma Malhas, who won a bronze medal in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, and was seen as the country’s most likely representative. However, her mother told the Guardian that Dalma would not be able to compete in London because her horse was injured.

This seemed like a convenient way out for Saudi officials. By saying they don’t mind women participation but don’t have any female athletes qualified to compete, they can avoid an Olympic ban while at the same time avoid the rage of powerful clerics in the country who oppose competitive sports for women.

To appease the clerics, Saudi most senior sports official Prince Nawaf bin Faisal announced a set of rules for women’s participation at the Olympics. Athletes can only take part if they do so “wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia” and “the athlete’s guardian agrees and attends with her,” he told local daily al-Jazirah. “There must also be no mixing with men during the Games,” he added.

Although the IOC said they remained cautiously optimistic of the Saudi women participation, they sounded very doubtful.

“I cannot guarantee it 100 percent,” Rogge told the AP on July 4, despite ongoing negotiations with Saudi officials. Four days later, the pan-Arab Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted a Saudi official saying there is no “female team taking part in the three fields.” But human rights organizations urged IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the London Games if they don’t send women.

“It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t find a woman athlete – it’s that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

On July 11, an unnamed Saudi official from the embassy in London denied media reports that no female athletes from his country will compete in the Games, telling the BBC “that a ‘shooter’ and ‘a runner called Alia’ are under consideration for London 2012.”

This turned out to be half true. Saudi Arabia will send two female athletes to London, but not the two mentioned by the embassy official.

Thursday, the IOC announced the names of the two Saudi female athletes to compete in London Olympics this summer: Wejdan Shahrkhani in judo above 78kg, and Sarah Attar at the 800m race.

Attar said she is honored to represent her country at London 2012 and hopes her participation will encourage Saudi women to get more involved in sport.

“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” she told the official Olympic website.

In the video published on the IOC website, Attar appears wearing a grey headscarf, with a loose-fitting long sleeves top and black sweatpants. She apparently did that to comply with the rules set by the Saudi government. A photo on her school’s website shows Attar in regular athletics gear, without a headscarf.

Attar was born and raised in Escondido, California. Her father is Saudi, her mother is American, and has been to Saudi Arabia only a couple times. She is a college student at Pepperdine University, where she is a a sophomore majoring in Art.

Attar has a message to Saudi women: “To any woman who wants to participate, I say ‘go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back’,” she said. “We all have the potential to get out there and get going.”

The Diplomatic Cables, Saudi Edition (1)

Thanks to hurricane Irene, I’m stuck at home for most of the weekend. So I thought I could use the time to go through the latest dump of US diplomatic cables about Saudi Arabia that was released yesterday.

One cable from January 2006 focuses on the cultural and sports programming by the US mission to Saudi Arabia. The cable says that the “creative implementation of seemingly uncontroversial programs can be extremely effective” especially when it comes to getting access to youth and women, two groups labeled as “hard to reach.” The cable correctly notes the differences between regions when it comes to organizing cultural events. Unsurprisingly, Riyadh is the most difficult due to the conservative nature of the city. Interestingly, the cable adds, “Working with the minority community of Shia is often easier than with the mainstream Sunnis.”

When I was living in Riyadh I used to attend some of the cultural events organized by the US Embassy there like music concerts. But the cable says that “Large-scale performances of musical groups can be difficult, given the security situation, the lack of a strong musical tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the possibility of religious disapproval.” Another problem mentioned here is women ability to access such programming. I still remember how in 2009 a female friend of mine was denied entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter to attend an such event because she did not have her mahram with her. Entering the DQ is a problem to many Saudis, but it was definitely worse for women.

Finally, the cable notes that sports programming has not been used in the past. This remained to be the case until this year when the US Consulate in Jeddah helped organize the first ever sports exchange between the two countries by inviting six young female basketball players to Washington DC.

Let’s stay in Jeddah, where a cable from April 2006 discusses the infrastructure problems of the city, specifically the infamous “Musk Lake” or the “Perfume Lake” as the cable calls it. In its summary, the cable says that “treatment of 85% of the sewage is at least six years away.” Nature did not wait for six years. Heavy rains and major floods paralyzed the city in late 2009 and again in early 2011 with hundreds of deaths. An investigation was ordered, but it did not go anywhere. Earlier this month, charges were dropped against eight of the major suspects in the case to the dismay of many Jeddawis.

Another cable from the coastal city suggests that Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) in February of that year has been concluded with a lot of optimism. That is true. Back then, there was a lot of optimism and hope in the air. King Abdullah has just ascended the throne with many promises of reform and change. We all know what happened since then. JEF is no longer the star-magnet it once was, and we’ve heard many calls to cancel it, especially from the conservatives who viewed it as a platform to promote liberal ideas.

Moving to the east coast, there were a couple of interesting tidbits in this “Dhahran Digest” cable.

One item in the cable talks about an AP reporter who was in the country for JEF and wanted to visit the Eastern Province to write about the Shia minority and Aramco. Both stories fell through. He “was not given permission by the Ministry of Petroleum to visit Aramco, in spite of assurances to the contrary.” As for the story on Shia, his editors decided to kill it because AP was negotiating with the government to open a bureau in Riyadh at the time and did not want to compromise their chances. Two years later, AP opened the Riyadh bureaue and appointed Donna Abu-Nasr as bureau chief. But AP could not keep Abu-Nassr happy and she recently left them to join Bloomberg.

Another item offers a glimpse into a lunch between the political officer at the Consulate and an unnamed member of the Al-Ahsa municipal council. I did a little digging to confirm that the member mentioned here is Mohammed al-Owafeir, who also serves as the dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Food at King Faisal University.

During the lunch, al-Owafeir receives a phone call from a female graduate student who needs help. “I feel very sorry for her,” he said after finishing the call, “but I cannot give her the help she needs” because of the strict gender segregation rules. He explained, “She is not even allowed to use the lab at the university and has to use an inferior lab at nearby college for women. It is very difficult for her to work by herself, without guidance in-person.”

Saudi women feature heavily in another cable from the Jeddah consulate, which talks about two new career paths like wedding DJ-ing. The cable also dedicates a paragraph to “Layalina,” a glossy society magazine that is “primarily a collection of photographs featuring prominent royalty, hip upper-class Saudis, and the occasional foreigner” at events and restaurants. It describes the photos of women without abayas and head scarves as “groundbreaking” for the country, but notes “that some conservatives have objected to the (for Saudi Arabia) risqu (sic.) portrayal of couples in public and the “revealing” photographs of women.” If you can read Arabic, you should read this blogpost that Yaser Bakr wrote about the magazine and why it has been a success and also why this success might not last for too long.

Tomorrow, I will follow up with another post looking into more diplomatic cables. Stay tuned.

Mas que un equipo

At the end of their first month at Columbia J-School, students are expected to produce a short audio slideshow to demonstrate the basic skills they acquired in audio and photo reporting. Below is my slideshow. It is about a football (Americans call it “soccer”) player who immigrated from Ecuador ten years ago.

What do you think?

World Cup broadcast rights, GPYW grilled in Shoura

  • Broadcast rights of major sports events such as the World Cup used to be a hot topic for debate in the Arab World. Not anymore as most people here have grown accustomed to the realities of premium TV in the region. But something in this article from the New York Times caught my attention: “In many smaller European countries, public broadcasters still have a firm grip on the World Cup, under a collective agreement between FIFA, the governing body for the tournament, and the European Broadcasting Union, a group representing public broadcasters. A similar deal was signed between FIFA and the African Union of Broadcasters, providing viewers with free access to all the World Cup matches across much of sub-Saharan Africa.” Why this is not the case here? In the Middle East there is such a union. It’s called ASBU. Unfortunately for the people in this region, ASBU is too weak and has been subdued by private TV networks owned by individuals with close ties to Arab government. Go figure.
  • Speaking for the World Cup, Saudi Arabia did not make it to this year’s tournament for the first time since 1994. This failure to qualify and other local sports issues have been recently discussed in the Shoura Council. The General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) has come under strong criticism from Shoura members who questioned the performance of GPWY and how they spend their budget. I highly doubt this will change anything in that aging body, but I’m glad to see them getting kicked, even if it was merely symbolic.

Haia Joins the Modern Age

When did the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) launch their “Precrime Unit,” a la Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report? I must have missed the announcement in the middle of this deafening debate over gender mixing.

In a decision that was justified by claiming it was doing the women a favor, the Haia’s branch in Al-Mujaradah has banned women from jogging and other physical exercise in certain areas of this Asir town, south of the country. The decision was based, according to an anonymous Haia source, on records from the commission that described one particular street in the town where women were banned as lonely, poorly lighted, and frequented by drug addicts and other anti-social people. However, this was disputed by one jogger, R.S Al-Shahri, who claimed that the street was safe and well-lit, while almost 30 women would walk there between sunset and Isha prayers.

You can say that this decision by Haia is part preemptive strike, part blaming the victim. Instead of watching these so-called unsafe areas and protect the women by arresting people who attempt to harass them, they go and prevent women from exercising there. Now of course this kind of behavior is not at all new or surprising on the part of Haia, but it happens that we are finally at a time when the Commission can get questioned over some of their actions. What used to be taboo in the past i.e. criticizing the CPVPV, is now a daily practice in the local media.

One of the latest examples comes from al-Madina daily, written by none other than a granddaughter of the Kingdom’s founder. Princess Basma bint Saud, who blogs here, wrote a scathing column calling the Haia to get their act together, telling them that fighting corruption starts from within, and that they should spend their time investigating the theft of public money instead of chasing women and men in barbaric fashion that was not ordered by God or his messenger. Interesting by her royal highness, so very interesting.

Watch this

Okay, so here are three videos that have been making the rounds on the local interwebs lately:

This is a commercial for the Saudi teleco giant Mobily. As with most of their ads, it is of high production quality. But that’s not what make it interesting. What makes it interesting is the fact that it stars Prince Abdullah bin Meteb, the grandson of King Abdullah. This is the first time a prince appears in a commercial, and some people think such thing signifies a change in the way members of the Saudi royal family conduct themselves. I don’t know. I mean, can’t this be just a sports sponsorship deal? Prince Abdullah is a professional rider who could use a sponsor for such an expensive career, and Mobily is a for-profit company who wants to improve their image and make more money. I, for one, did not raise an eyebrow when I saw the tv ad.

In this video, a man who allegedly belongs to the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is seen ambushing a jalsa which is basically a small gathering where people entertain themselves with music and dancing. The bearded man snatches the oud from the singer’s lap with a swift move, and then smashed it to the ground in a scene more commonly associated with rock concerts. So much for calling to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.

The Cube is a popular British game show. For some reason, the Saudi state TV thought it was a good idea to bring it to their screen. The Saudi version is the same as the British one, except that our version has a nutty host who keeps on screaming. This video was put together by fellow blogger Raed al-Saeed, who previously produced Schism and Why Gaza children don’t deserve to be killed. I wonder if what he did is legal under the new e-media law proposed by MOCI :P