Tuesday, September 4, 2012
wojdan shaherkani, olympic beginner.
wojdan ali seraj abdulrahim shaherkani, a 16yo judoka,
has been termed both a progressive & a prostitute by her fellow saudis.
but regardless of what they might have called her via twitter,
one title for wojdan is irrefutable: she is the first female athlete ever
to compete at the olympics for saudi arabia.
& it's for this distinction that she's been both damned & praised.
wojdan was one of two women selected to represent the kingdom of saudi arabia
at the london games — following intense pressure from the
international olympic committee upon the saudi arabian olympic committee,
& months of negotiations between the two entities, to include women on the the team.
saudi arabia has a sort of "gender apartheid" of sports,
effectively banning women from athletic activity.
girls do not participate in sports at state schools, &
women athletes must fund themselves & arrange their own training elsewhere.
of course, sports is just the tip of saudi arabia's laws for women —
women are required by law to wear a black abaya [cloak] &
a hijab [headscarf] whenever they're out in public.
saudi women may not drive, run a business or enter main government buildings.
women may not travel abroad without official permission
from their guardians & authorization from their government.
a product of her culture, wojdan shaherkani had never left her home country
until she came to london. & she was woefully underqualified for
olympic competition, having practiced judo for only two years
at home with coaching from her father, a judo referee.
while at the olympics, both wojdan & her fellow saudi female —
19yo runner sarah attar — had to agree to dress "modestly" [hijab,
long sleeves, long pants], always be accompanied by a male guardian,
& never mix with men.
competition clothing had to comply with islamic law, too —
but no headwear is permitted in judo. scandal erupted.
wojdan threatened to withdraw from the event
if she wasn't permitted to wear her hijab during bouts.
the ioc, saoc & the international judo federation went to work,
& together, came up with a special design for wojdan:
a tight-fitting cap-style head covering, rather than the typical
draping headscarf, which might prove a strangulation hazard.
so wojdan competed in the over-78kg judo event,
the lone blue-belt judoka against a sea of black belts.
she lost her first match — against puerto rico's
melissa mojica — in 82 seconds.
but wojdan's spirit & perspective were undefeated:
"i am happy to be at the olympics," she said following the match.
"unfortunately, we did not win a medal. but in the future, we will,
& i will be a star for women's participation."
her saudi teammate, sarah attar, fared similarly.
though sarah has spent much of her life in the u.s.
& is currently studying at california's pepperdine university,
she hadn't raced competitively since high school
wearing a white hijab & black leggings,
sarah finished a distant last in the final heat
of the women's 800m. yet she smiled & waved to the cheering crowd
as though she'd won the gold.
because for the women olympians of saudi arabia,
it's really not whether you win or lose,
or even how you play the game —
it's just getting a chance to play the game at all.