Last night was a magical occasion. From James Bond to the Queen jumping out of a helicopter (admittedly, a double) and Mr Bean’s cameo with the London philharmonic orchestra. My own personal highlight was worth the wait. As the teams made their way into the arena three teams sent for the first time sent female athletes. The first was Brunei. Some time after Qatar’s first female athletes made their way into the arena. Finally, the wait was over. Saudi’s first female athletes appeared. Wodjan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar walked with their heads held high and waved to the crowd. They were joined by Arwa Mutabagani, the female team manager, former professional show-jumper and mother of Saudi Arabian rider and Olympic hopeful Dalma Rushdi Malhas.
For anyone who has been following this little slice of history in the making, there’s been controversy and debate both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad about Saudi women taking part. I referred to this in a previous post. There’s still uncertainty as to whether Shahrkhani, who is supposed to be competing in judo, will be able to take part and still wear the hijab, the piece of clothing that covers her hair.
The debate online outside Saudi Arabia has focused on women’s right and how the Kingdom is still not doing enough when it comes to promoting and protecting their equality. A good post that sums up the contrasting arguments found in yesterday’s and today’s media has been written by Huffington Post producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and can be accessed here.
Having lived in both Jeddah and Riyadh for years I’m proud to be able to call many Saudis, both male and female, good friends. There’s no simple answers in a country that could be said to be more diverse and varied than any other in the Middle East region.
I am however, even prouder of Attar and Shahrkhani. Whether or not people think that their participation is a symbolic gesture, they are there in London as athletes and they have set a first for their country and Saudi women. History has been made and Saudi Arabia no longer stands alone as the one country that didn’t send women to the Olympic games. The support for the ladies online and on social media forums has been overwhelming. There has been criticism as well, as this post by Amira Al Hussaini on the online portal Global Voices points out, but I would like to think that these people are a small, vocal minority (this is a great update story to the original Global Voices post by Bikaya Masr).
Their participation at London 2012 shows that change is possible – one could say it is inevitable – and that others will benefit from what Attar and Shahrkhani are doing at the London 2012 Olympics. I’ll be cheering them on during the games and I’m sure that millions of others will be behind them for all that they have and are achieving.
If anyone knows of a Twitter hashtag for supporting the ladies do let me know in the comments section.
PS you can support Sarah via her Facebook page here. I haven’t seen one for Wojdan yet, but if there is a site I’ll add it here.