Supporting Saudi’s first female athletes. #London2012 #Olympics

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.

From left to right: Attar, Shahrkhani, and Mutabagani represent Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremony for London 2012

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.

Sarah Attar will be the first Saudi woman to run in the Olympics when she competes in the 800 meters

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.

The ladies will be flying the flag for their country during London 2012

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.

Understanding the #Gulf through the #Olympics

It’s always interesting to view the Gulf through the prism of global events such as the Olympics. Much has been made of the ping-pong played by Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee with the International Olympic Committee in respects to sending Saudi females athletes to the 2012 Olympics. A good overview of the affair can be read here in a piece by the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer.

The paragraph below is from Knickmeyer’s article (Knickmeyer can be followed on Twitter at @EllenKnickmeyer)

“Saudi Arabia ended its status as the last Olympic nation to refuse to send women athletes to the Olympics, agreeing just two weeks before the start of the London games to field two young female competitors, the International Olympic Committee announced.”

The Saudi female athlete saga has been making headlines globally, both in print and via broadcast outlets. Al Jazeera covered the news extensively and featured clips of one of the two Saudi ladies. Sarah Attar is a 17-year-old, California-raised and -trained track competitor who will race in the 800-meters.

Knickmeyer and others have noted that despite the gravity of the decision to finally send Saudi female athletes to the Olympics the news has not even been registered by the country’s official media outlets. “The kingdom’s state media, which recently announced the men’s teams for the games, made no public comment by Thursday evening on sending women as well.”

Contrast this to Kuwait, which is sending its first female swimmer (yes, swimmer) to the Olympics. She’s interviewed here by the Kuwait Times.

Faye Sultan is also featured in an interview below with the BBC (unfortunately this video can’t be embedded but can be accessed via the link below).

Kuwait's Faye Sultan to make Olympic history

She was also documented at a semi final Women’s 50m freestyle race at the Hungarian National Swimming Championship 2012 a couple of months back. The video is embedded below and you can make out Faye from her swimming cap which has the Kuwaiti flag emblazoned on it.

And then there is Bahrain. According to Bahrain’s largest circulation English newspaper fourteen Bahrainis will be going for gold when they compete against the world’s best at the London Olympics later this month. The article goes onto say that Bahrain’s medal hopefuls include Mahboob Hassan, Adam Ismail, Shawqi Jamal, Haleem Jabry, Bilal Ali, Mariam Jamal, Mimi Salim, Shama Mubarak, Taj Baba, Jamila Shami and Maitha Lahdan.

Now we get to the fun part. If you’re a Bahraini or know Bahrain you’re probably going to know that those names aren’t your typical family names found in Muharraq, Manama or Riffa. Mahboob Hassan is a Kenyan who was naturalized in 2005/2006. Bilisuma Shugi is an Ethiopian, while Tareq Mubarak Taher is also a Kenyan who changed his name from Dennis Kipkurui Sang.

Meet the Bahrain Olympians and spot how many are actually Bahraini

Bahraini nationals often voice concerns about the number of naturalized Bahrainis in certain segments of government (the best example would be the police force which employs few native Bahrainis). And what has been the reaction of Bahrainis to the above? One person started a hashtag called #uniteafrica while the most popular tweet was the below.

All in all, an interesting view into the culture of the Gulf through their Olympic policies. And no, I’m not even going to cover Qatar and their Brazilian/Uruguayan B football squad.