Saudi Arabia’s first woman to compete at the Olympics, judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, has given hope with her symbolic brief fight on Friday to female compatriots who also dream of international competition.
“We are proud of her participation which we believe will open the doors for greater presence” of Saudi women in international sports, said Saudi sports journalist Amal Ismael.
Shaherkani walked onto the judo mat and bowed to her opponent Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico before gripping up to make history. But her debut lasted just 82 seconds before she was thrown for the maximum ippon.
“The girls didn’t practice enough. Their participation was symbolic and honorary in the first place,” said Ismael, referring to Shaherkani and American-raised 800m Saudi runner Sarah Attar.
Lina al-Maena, who coaches Jeddah United, a female basketball club in the Red Sea city, agreed “the fight was very quick and short, but what counts is the participation. We weren’t expecting great results as she didn’t get much training.”
Shaherkani has only been involved in the sport for two years and is not even a black belt, making her nowhere near the level of the international fighter she came up against — Mojica, ranked 13 in the world.
“Wojdan was also under pressure following the long controversy over the veil. This affected her ability to remain focused,” said Maena. However, her participation “has paved the way for women to take part in the next Olympics.”
Shaherkani’s case sparked a huge controversy after International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer had said she would not be able to fight in a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf.
Judo rules ban any head-covering on safety grounds.
But Saudi officials had said their women could only compete if they respected Islamic dress.
Shaherkani’s participation was at risk until international judo and Saudi officials reached a compromise agreement to let her compete with a modified head-covering.
It covered the entire top of her head, while the back of her neck was masked by the collar of her judo suit. Several times she adjusted the cap, both before and during her bout.
In the kingdom, the game coincided with the weekly Friday prayer as coffee shops and restaurants were closed during the day for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, making it impossible for Saudis to gather and watch the game in public.
The Saudi sports channel did not broadcast the fight as the kingdom forbids public displays of female sports, and state television is banned from airing tennis matches in which women compete — even if they can be seen on satellite television across the kingdom.
But “most families made sure to watch Wojdan’s game (from home) to support her… I watched it with my husband” on other Gulf channels airing the Games, said Ismael.
Men in the ultra-conservative kingdom where women are not allowed to drive and prevented from going out alone without a male guardian, also hailed Shaherkani’s historic participation.
“Wojdan Shaherkani, everybody knew you would lose even before the game started. But rest assured … that you have achieved victory over the society’s restrictions and its backwardness,” Saudi tweeter Badr Munif wrote.
Another tweeter, Saleh al-Thubaiti wrote: “Sixteen-year-old Wojdan has registered her name as the first veiled and Saudi woman in judo throughout the history of the Olympics.”
A much smaller number of tweeters opposing women’s participation in the Games started a hashtag saying “Stop women participation in the Olympics.”
“The participation has buried one of the main necessities that Sharia (Islamic law) is meant to guard — honour,” wrote Khaled al-Saqaby.
But according to 55-year-old Abdullah al-Shehri, “many Saudis do not oppose sports as long as they adhere to Sharia rule.”
The kingdom’s most senior sports official, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, had said women would be allowed to compete so long as they were “wearing suitable clothing that complies with Sharia.”
He also added other stipulations, including that “the athlete’s guardian agrees and attends with her,” and that “there must also be no mixing with men during the Games.”
Shaherkani was accompanied by her father Ali, who is a judo referee at the Games.
“The next Olympics will witness strong and effective participation from Saudi girls in many sports … Wojdan’s participation is an achievement for Saudi women,” 26-year-old Nisreen Mohammed told AFP.