Olympics 2012: Saudi Arabia's female athletes score for Muslim women

Saudi Arabia has sent two women to the Olympics for the first time, and the decision could have a major impact for that country in the future. Photo: Sarah Attar marches into the Olympics Stadium with the Saudi team

CHARLOTTE, N.C., July 29, 2012 — Saudi Arabia has made a major concession to women and the global community by allowing two female athletes to compete in the Olympics.

An even more dramatic accommodation to the games is that Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, a judo competitor, will compete without a hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

To the Western world this may seem like a simple compromise; a no-brainer, but to Saudi Arabia the decision is monumental.

Consider the story in 2002 when 800 girls attempted to flee their blazing school in Mecca. The mutaween, otherwise known as the religious police, barred the doors when several girls tried to escape without wearing proper Islamic dress, an abaya (black robe) and/or a hijab. Fifteen young girls died in the incident.

The mutaween are everywhere in Saudi Arabia and widely feared, roaming the streets, shopping malls, restaurants, and any other public gathering spot to ensure that religious protocol is being followed, that there is no mingling between the sexes and that prayer call are being honored.

So it is no small accomplishment that Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani and Sarah Attar will be allowed to participate. Attar’s situation is slightly different because she has dual citizenship as an American and a Saudi; however her status may also be questionable when her events arise.

In an announcement by International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani “will fight according to the principle and spirit of judo without a hijab.”

While the decision may satisfy the I.O.C, it may only inflame the controversy back home.

The decision was the correct, even though it could have denied the Saudi judo athlete her groundbreaking appearance. To yield to the cultural practices of a single country would alter the spirit of the Olympics forever.

Such a concession could allow other nations to alter the rules of individual sports to cater to their individual traditions, which would be a nightmare to monitor. Whatever the international rules are for any given event, they must apply to every country and every competitor without regard for political or religious influence.

Though it is relatively unimportant, U.S. basketball players must adapt to international free throw lanes, which are wider near the basket than they are at the foul line. In American basketball the lanes are parallel.

Sarah Attar, ready to run for Saudi Arabia

It is hardly a major adjustment, but basketball is an American invention, which means our rules could be technically challenged by the Olympics rules.

Fighting without a headscarf may be the initial controversy, but it will be interesting to see whether Sarah Attar creates a larger problem.

Attar, who is a long distance runner, attends Pepperdine University. Her family has already asked the school to remove the photos of her in her online biography. In photos that show Attar’s image, she is wearing a scarf. 

More controversial however, will be what Attar wears during her competition. There is no reasonable way for her to participate in an abayah and a hijab. Perhaps she could wear a long sleeve shirt and long slacks, but even those concessions could be cumbersome against the finest athletes in the world.

Needless to say, the decision by the female Saudis may be significant, but they almost certainly will not quiet the controversy.

From a personal perspective, women may ultimately be the single most dynamic force to bring about change and enlightenment within Saudi Arabia. Westerners have little or no influence as we attempt to instill our values into their culture. Change must come from within, and the women will probably make the difference.

In that regard, the two female athletes representing Saudi Arabia in 2012 may have a greater impact in the long run than the short term symbolism of being the first women from that nation to compete in the Olympics. 

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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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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