The International Olympic Committee has announced that Sarah Attar will compete for Saudi Arabia in the 800 meter race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will compete in judo. They are the first women to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics.
The Saudi government lifted the ban on women competing over the objections of strict fundamentalist clerics who claim that women have their virtue compromised by participating in sports of any kind.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in finally going past the clerical resistence and allowing women to compete. Both Brunei and Qatar are sending women to London. Maziah Mahusin will run the 400 meter hurdles for Brunei, and Qatar is sending Nada Arkaji (swimming), Noor al-Malki (athletics), Ava Magdy (table tennis) and Bahiya al-Hamad (shooting). The women will wear clothing that meets the basic requirements of “modesty” in Islam, meaning loose-fitting instead of the skin-tight, spandex-riddled running clothes favored by Western runners and head coverings. No one has explained what Ms. Arkaji will be wearing in the pool.
Brunei is a tiny, incredibly oil-rich country on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Qatar is the pickle-shaped peninsula that sticks straight north from the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. The three have very traditional Sunni-based governments and strictly limit the rights of women.
These seven women represent a much larger movement in the Muslim world, the underside of the Arab Spring. The fight for women’s rights is taking many different forms in Islamic countries.
In Egypt, Libya and Syria, women had civil rights that made them equal or almost equal to men. Before the uprising in Syria, Bashar al-Assad was working to free women from head scarfs, a very small right, but an acknowledgment that the wearing of head scarfs is not universal throughout Islam. In the aftermath of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, the issue of women’s rights has been critical to the establishment of new governments. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s treatment of women was one of the emotional buttons the Bush administration pushed before we invaded the country. The return of the Taliban has threatened the few rights women have achieved in the past 10 years.
The movement is quieter in countries like Saudi Arabia, where there is no overriding battle for freedom from a dictator. For the past two years, Saudi women have risked jail to force the government to allow them to drive. These are countries where the women are fighting against extremely tradition-bound religious limits on their personal freedom.
Sarah Attar has been training in the United States. She said of being allowed to represent her nation, “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”
Bahiya al-Hamad will be carrying the Qatar flag in the opening ceremony, which she called a “truly historic moment.” That’s an understatement. For the first time in Olympic history, every competing nation will have female participants.