After making history at Olympics, Saudi judoka draws praise and scorn


Judoka Wojdan Shaherkani made history as Saudi Arabia’s first female athlete to compete at the Olympics when she played against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica at the ExCel Center in London Friday morning.

Back in her native country, the participation of this 16-year-old girl from Makkah has drawn praise and scorn.

The decision to send Saudi women to the Olympics was not made until the last minute, and it came after a long debate between senior government officials who found themselves under high pressure from the International Olympic Committee and human rights groups.

After Shaherkani made her debut at the Games, a short affair that lasted only one minute and 22 seconds, Saudis took to Twitter to express their feelings about seeing the first woman from the country competing at the Olympics.

Even though Shaherkani was wearing hijab, a condition set by Saudi officials that had to be negotiated with the International Judo Federation, religious conservatives were unhappy with her appearance.

“You do not represent the chaste Muslim woman,” wrote Mohammad al-Barrak, a faculty member at Um al-Qura University in Makkah, on Twitter. “You are a disgrace to honorable Muslims everywhere.”

Other tweets posted to the hashtag named after Shaherkani contained racial slurs against her, such as calling her “Tarsh Bahar” (sea remnants), a derogatory term used to describe people who came to Mecca for pilgrimage and stayed there.

But the hashtag that carried many negative comments at the beginning was later taken over by supporters of Shaherkani who saw in her Olympic debut a milestone for Saudi women.

“We are so proud of you Wojdan,” tweeted journalist Asma Alsharif. “It takes a lot of courage to do what you did.”

Activist Manal al-Sharif, who led a campaign to allow Saudi women to drive, described Shaherkani’s participation at London Olympics as historic. “For us Saudi women judoka Wijdan Siraj is a champion,” she said on Twitter.

The praise was not limited to Saudis.

“Thank you, Wojdan Shaherkani,” tweeted UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

And while some people on Twitter mocked the quick loss of Shaherkani, who lasted less than two minutes on the mat, others were quick to point out that she can't be blamed for her lack of experience.

“Wojdan lost not because Saudi women lack potential but rather [because] Saudi govt. made it almost impossible for women to practice sports locally,” tweeted Jaafar Alsaffar.

Rafid Fatani, a Saudi academic who was cheering Shaherkani from the stands at the ExCel Center, wrote on his blog that he felt immense pride as he watched her competing against a much more experienced opponent.

“I hope and wish that Wojdan participation in the Olympics will highlight the importance of women in sports,” he wrote, “and highlight the URGENT need to create facilities and gyms in schools and beyond for females in the Kingdom.”