London 2012: First Saudi Woman To Compete In Olympics Makes History

Wojdan Shaherkani made history Friday morning as the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in an Olympic Games.

Saudi Arabia’s Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani parades during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Photo: Facebook

Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympic Games when she took part in the +78kg judo competition in London, reports BBC.

Wojdan Shaherkani was greeted with enthusiastic applause when she stepped onto the mat at London’s Excel Centre.

The contest lasted only 82 seconds. The 16-year-old Shaherkani, who was making her competitive debut in the glare of the global spotlight, was thrown on her back in an ippon by her opponent, 28-year-old Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the opening round of women’s +78 kg judo, according to The Washington Post.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era,” Shahrkhani said afterwards. “I was scared a lot, because of all the crowd. Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

However, it was the first time the Saudi judoka had competed publicly; women aren’t allowed to play competitive sports or attend sporting events in the kingdom.

The participation of Shahrkhani had raised the scorn of the kingdom’s ultraconservative Islamic clerics, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges.

“I am very excited, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Shaherkani said before her appearance in the Olympic Games. “Certainly the Saudi judo federation are delighted that I’ve been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also. Hopefully this is the begin [sic] of a new era.”

According to The Huff Post, Rafid Fatani, a Saudi who pulled out all the stops to make sure he could attend Shahrkhani’s match in London, walked out of the stadium afterwards proudly waving his nation’s flag.

At the same time, Saudi preacher Sittam al-Dusri said that Shahrkhani’s family should have protected her “as a precious gem” from the eyes of men.

“It is not important for the West that the Saudi woman participates well, but that she goes out in dress that does not conform to Islamic rules,” he said. “Wojdan is a martyr of Westernization and liberalism.”

Shaherkani’s father, Ali, a judo referee, said he “cried like a baby” watching his daughter compete.

“She was happy and smiled when she finished the fight,” he said. “She hugged me and said: ‘Daddy, I did this.’ I was so proud.”

Mojica told reporters afterward that she felt that Shaherkani was perhaps more insecure than afraid in their match, which began tentatively, with each circling the other and taking occasional pokes at her opponent. Once Mojica took firm hold of Shaherkani, it ended quickly.

“I didn’t make her any favors, but I waited for the right moment,” Mojica said. “I admire her for coming from that country and having the courage to compete. I didn’t feel pity for. I felt a lot of respect.”

Shahrkhani dressed in a loose, cream-colored judo suit and a tightly-fitted black cap that served in the place of a traditional hijab, or headscarf worn by conservative women to cover their hair.

Shaherkani is one of two Saudi women to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Runner Sarah Attar will compete in the women’s 800-meter race next Wednesday.

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