By Faisal J. Abbas
As Sarah Attar finished last in her 800-metre race on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s first female participation at the Olympics came to a seemingly ignominious end.
Last Friday, the other Saudi contender, 16-year-old judoka Wojdan Ali Shaherkani, made her international debut at the London ExCel Centre, in a match which was certainly not even. The inexperienced Saudi faced Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, who is ranked 13th in the world. The challenge ended in a mere 82 seconds, when Mojica performed an impeccable match-ending ippon throw.
After she picked herself off the floor, the young Saudi martial artiste received a much-deserved standing ovation from the crowd as she left the arena alongside her father, coach and judo referee, Ali Shaherkani.
Many will say the Saudi women lost their London Olympic battles, but Wojdan and Sarah won a much bigger ‘war’ for women in their home country. After all, up until a few weeks ago, nobody (including the two athletes themselves) even anticipated that Saudi Arabia — where a ban is imposed on women’s sports — would have a female presence in London 2012.
Participation by Sarah (who was born and raised in California) and Wojdan came only as a result of months of negotiations between their government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC went out of its way to ensure that by the time the 2012 Games were inaugurated, it would be the first tournament to ever have female representation on all participating teams.
With no real infrastructure for female athletes in Saudi Arabia, sports officials had to scramble to secure whomever they could find. For its part, the IOC made exceptions and allowed the two Saudi women to participate based on ‘special invitations’ and not on merit or competiveness.
This is why the results achieved by Wojdan and Sarah were not surprising; hardly anybody actually anticipated they would contest for a medal.
The surprise came from the appalling comments made about the pair on social media sites, blogs and web-forums.
Many ultra-conservatives, who oppose allowing women to engage in sports publically, used extremely offensive terms questioning Wojdan’s and Sarah’s morality.
Others made further comments disassociating Wojdan from being Muslim and even from being Saudi. One racist comment described her as Tarsh Bahar (sea remnants), a local derogatory term used to describe people who came to Makkah from outside Saudi Arabia, but decide to stay and become Saudi.
Such comments are utterly unacceptable towards anyone, let alone a person who took it upon herself to respond to the call of duty when she knew she didn’t stand a chance against superior competition.
Wojdan knew she had no experience, she knew she lacked the training and she knew she was facing the world’s 13th best judo player. She still didn’t shy away from the competition.
If anything, she has proven to be more of a man than most of the mice who were squeaking rubbish against her on Twitter.
As for the ‘Father of the Pride’, Ali Shaherkani, he was well-advised to pursue in a court of law those who insulted his daughter, as he announced he would.
In most civilised countries, most of these hateful comments against Wojdan would easily be categorised as libelous; she would be able to claim for serious damages and demand a public apology as well.
We also must remember the many supporters of the two Saudi athletes, who went public with their encouragement and gratitude.
Activist Manal Al Sharif, who led a campaign to allow Saudi women to drive, described Wojdan’s participation in the London Olympics as historic. “For us Saudi women judoka Wojdan is a champion,” she said on Twitter.
The praise wasn’t limited to Saudis, as UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan tweeted: “Thank you, Wojdan Shaherkani”.
Yet there needs to be more gratitude for these courageous women. Even though Wojdan and Sarah are officially Olympians, they have not yet been officially recognised by the Saudi government as Olympic competitors.
It was virtually impossible for these two female Saudi athletes to bring home a gold medal, but there is nothing stopping the Saudi government from awarding them with a medal of honour.
After all, if it wasn’t for the courage and patriotism of these honourable young ladies, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t even have had an Olympic presence this year.
-This commentary was published in GULF NEWS on 10/08/2012