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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