CHARLOTTE, August 2, 2012 — The Olympics and controversy have never been strangers, but the headscarf issue for a female Saudi Arabian athlete may have far-reaching implications on both sides.
Putting the conflict in perspective, while attempting to simplify its complexity, is a metaphor for a multitude of differences in finding common ground between the Islamic world and the West. But there are also internal disputes within the Muslim world itself, which further complicates the problem.
When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revitalized the modern Olympic Games in 1896, his ideology was to create an international event for amateur athletes from all over the world to showcase their skills. The concept was devoid of politics or religion. In fact, part of its purpose was global awareness and interchange.
Coubertin’s idealism was so strong that he even believed that the honor of participating should outweigh importance of winning or losing.
The games of 2012 have historic significance for London, which did not go unnoticed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For starters, London is the first city in history to have the honor of hosting the Olympics three times.
A lesser-known fact is that London currently has the highest Muslim population of any city that has ever held the games. Furthermore, a high concentration of London’s Muslim community lives in the eastern section of town that was revived with new venues and infrastructure to accommodate the influx of athletes, media and spectators.
Adhering to the original philosophy of Baron de Coubertin, the IOC made a determined effort to make 2012 the most inclusive games ever by having male and female athletes from every competing country for the first time in history.
Three Muslim Countries Participate for First Time
From this year’s list, three nations are participating that had never opened their rosters to a woman athlete: Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Of the three, Saudi Arabia made the most dramatic concession by agreeing to allow a female competitor. Initially, it appeared to be a major breakthrough for women’s rights in that country.
But the positive significance of the milestone was short-lived.
Enter Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, a Saudi Arabian teenager who made the historic step by being sent to compete in judo.
A second athlete, Sarah Attar, will also appear under the Saudi flag, but she faces a separate set of circumstances. Attar has dual citizenship. Her mother is American and her father is Saudi. As a distance runner for Pepperdine University, Sarah usually competes in typical attire for her sport.
However, since she will be running for the Saudi team, and based upon her Internet photos, Attar will likely participate in appropriate clothing and a headscarf that is acceptable for her religion. If there is any hindrance to Sarah’s performance as a result of her uniform, it will only affect her individually without consequence to other runners.
Two Problems Emerge In the Shaherkani Controversy
Not so for Shaherkani. First, the implications for her are greater because she is a Saudi citizen from Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and site of the annual Haj, which attracts millions of Muslim pilgrims each year.
Secondly and the primary aspect of the controversy, is that traditional judo uniforms are loose fitting outfits that are incorporated into the competition itself. In order for Shaherkani to participate within the requirements of her Islamic faith, she must wear a hijab or headscarf.
When the International Judo Federation (IJF) insisted that the Saudi woman had to fight without a head covering, Shaherkani initially agreed, but later, under pressure from her father, changed her decision and threatened to withdraw.
After several meetings and discussions over the weekend, a compromise was reached to allow Shaherkani to fight with a yet-to-be-demonstrated tight fitting head covering that was said to be acceptable to all parties.
As everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief at the perceived solution, additional questions have arisen for which there seems to be no comfortable result. Herein lies the complexity of the story, which has greater implications than a simple debate about wearing a hijab or not during Shaherkani’s event.
Were Too Many Concessions Made to Saudi Arabia?
By any standard, Shaherkani is not a qualified competitor for her event. Her level of judo is only a blue belt in a competition that has never featured any participant who was not a black belt in the sport. Such a concession to the Saudi woman is an obvious effort to make allowances for her to take part in the games as a means of being politically correct.
With such credentials, Shaherkani will probably be soundly defeated in her first round match. She has never competed on any level other than within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against vastly inferior challengers.
When Shaherkani loses, the story supposedly ends and the controversy goes away.
What no one seems to know, however, is what happens if the head covering comes off during the match? Does that carry religious impact within Shaherkani’s home country? Will it cause a delay in the fight as she adjusts her turban back to an acceptable level?
More importantly, the complexity of the story speaks to the deeper problems of yielding to religious distinctions that are significant on both sides of the issue.
The impact of appeasing cultural differences among nations is obvious. If such things can, and are, accommodated for the Olympics, what does this mean long-term for political, legal and other societal controversies?
But there are also other questions within the Middle East. Hard-liners claim that they do not see how the uniform will be modest enough to conform to Islamic tradition. Then again, there is no precedent to determine what appropriate criteria might be.
Others say since most Saudi women are denied the opportunity to openly participate, much less even watch, sports throughout the kingdom, that Shaherkani’s milestone is then little more than a sham.
Saudi Arabia, like some of the other Gulf States, does not have a constitution or legislature. That is because there is no separation of church and state in Islam, so rulers have limited authority to make changes. Laws are based upon Sharia as interpreted by religious scholars, which means that in Saudi society, Islam is as much a way of life as it is a religion.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani is expected to compete in judo. She will probably lose, but the story will not end. For all the positive impact for Saudi women that Shaherkani represents, there are far greater negative implications for the Western world.
By ignoring the story or, to break it down to the lowest common denominator, by merely giving it lip service, we are failing to recognize the far-reaching consequences that such concessions may have in the future.
It will all come to a head in London. Only time will tell how much it matters.
Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NC. He played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club, which creates, and escorts customized tours to Switzerland, France and Italy for groups of 12 or more. Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@aol.com Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others. As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 69 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries.
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