World News

Leah McElrath: Saudi Women Speak Out

August 17, 2012

During the Olympics, some good articles were written about the meaning and impact of the presence of women from Saudi Arabia in the 2012 London Olympics. However, if you read the headlines only (as many people do) you’d be likely to come away believing that the participation of 16 year old Wojdan Shaherkani and 19 year old Sarah Attar meant little to the women within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Just check out these examples:

“Saudis Greet Olympic First With a Shrug”

“Saudi Arabia media ignores historic Olympic Games of female athletes”

“Saudi Women’s Olympics Debut ‘Means Very Little’ for Gender Equality, Experts Say”

“Saudi Women in the Olympics: Breakthrough or Tokenism?”

“An Olympic first for Muslim women? Not really”

Those headlines contrast greatly with the comments from a randomly selected number of women in Saudi Arabia (solicited via a query on Twitter) whom I interviewed via email and instant messaging for this piece. All of the women gave permission to use their real names, which, given the politically volatile nature of women’s rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is in itself a statement about how much this subject means to them.

When I asked an engineering professional named Ghada Al-Khars about what seeing Sarah and Wojdan in the Opening Ceremonies meant to her, she said, “I was proud. They were living the dream I wanted to live…I wished I could participate. I was a short distance runner in high school, and my dream was to run in the Olympics.”

Another woman who volunteered to be interviewed, Najla Hariri, responded, “I was so proud of those ladies! But it is a bit pathetic [in terms of how it reflects on Saudi Arabia] that they are going to participate in [sports activities] they cannot practice in their own country!” She also commented, “Saudi society is divided in two parts: one is very excited and encouraging and the other is objecting and cursing. Both parts are waiting for what will happen next.”

A 26 year old woman named Ghadah Hamidi told me, “I was really excited; it felt a bit surreal. I was a bit disappointed they were tailing the group…Nevertheless, it was a proud moment for all Saudi women. When it finally came time for them to compete, we all knew that athletically they weren’t exactly ready. They weren’t particularly aiming for the gold, but the fact that they had the courage to compete regardless of [their relative lack of preparation] is admirable. I was thrilled when I saw the Saudi flag listed with all the other countries during the games!”

When I followed up asking her about her response to seeing the standing ovation that Sarah Attar received after finishing her race, she exclaimed, “The global support for them was thrilling and joyful to watch! They are champions in our eyes, but the global reaction was astonishing! They represented a model of Saudi women that needed to be seen: a strong courageous and determined woman. I was proud to witness that. They broke a major barrier, and they made history, and for that they deserve all the international enthusiasm and support.”

Asking the women about what the participation of the women might mean for the future of the Kingdom revealed that this small, random sample of Saudi women were not naive about the political challenges ahead. Saudi blogger and activist Eman Al Nafjan said “short term the only effect [the participation of women] will have is to get the dialogue going within Saudi.” However, she also cautioned about potential backlash, saying, “I think that this step will make the ultra conservatives extremely sensitive to any initiatives to start physical education in girls’ public schools.”

Najla Hariri also brought up the issue of allowing girls to play school sports but had a more hopeful view, “[The] Saudi government approved girls’ sports in schools but they didn’t say when they are going to start. The decision itself gives women and girls a hope for the future. I think the presence of those ladies in London and all the discussion will lead the society to accept girls’ sports sooner or later, no matter what the religious trends are.” Ghada Hamidi reflected, “Having women in the Olympics team has certainly given me hope for more progressive changes with regards to Saudi women in the near future. I hope this will change the current situation particularly for women in sports since they lack proper facilities, official domestic competitions in addition to prohibiting sports in public schools.”

When queried about what larger impact the participation of the two young Saudi women in these Olympics might have, Ghada Al-Khars responded, “I hope, if anything, this would make women more aware of their rights and prompt them to push for reform.” Ghada Hamidi voiced similar hopes, “The future generations of women should feel empowered enough now to know that their gender should no longer be a factor if they want to pursue sports professionally, whether locally or by representing the country in international competitions. That said, I hope that empowering women in sports would transcend to other more pressing issues related to the status of women in the Kingdom.”

Importantly, some of the women interviewed made comments they wished not be attributed to them individually about how, when it came to Olympic participation, the men of Saudi Arabia were for once dependent on the women and how this international pressure resulted in a positive step forward for the Kingdom.

Finally, if you have any doubt about whether the women and girls of Saudi Arabia were paying attention to what happened in London, check out the final photo in this wonderful photo essay by Saudi Arabian blogger and journalist Ahmed Al Omran.

The images of two strong, courageous young Saudi women athletes will forever exist as part of Saudi history. If you listen to the voices of the women interviewed herein, you can hear that a bell of hope and expectation has been rung – a bell that cannot be unrung within the hearts and minds of the women and girls of Saudi Arabia. Time will tell if the leaders of the Kingdom heard it as well.

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