Saudi Judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics, London (Reuters).
I specifically watched Saudi Arabia's team march into the stadium of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in order to see the two women who had the fortitude to serve as their country's first women representatives: Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar.
While others were struck by their place at the back of the team, I was struck by their beautiful traditional clothing, their happiness, and their salutations to the crowds. Both were waving confidently and proudly; both were beaming to be there. Wojdan in particular caught my attention, perhaps initially because of her size, but primarily because she appeared so warm and gracious toward the crowd, handling the extra attention with aplomb.
Friday, July 27, 2012 Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, parades, along with her team, during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Judo competitor Wojdan is only 16, and at her first Olympics. A first Olympics is what many Olympians would call their "experience Olympics", that is, the one they go to with no hope of medal contention but to gain first-hand knowledge of the Olympic experience in preparation for their future "performance Olympics" where they are better ranked and do expect better results. Unlike these other athletes who largely escape individual attention during their first Olympics, Wojdan has faced massive media attention internationally, and harsh criticism nationally. Her entry ticket into the Olympics, by invitation rather than qualification, her lack of a black belt, her hair and hijab, and mostly her gender have been the focus of consternation and criticism.
To her immense credit she has remained focused and steadfast in performing her Olympic duties as the chosen representative of her country.She agreed to fight in a modified hijab as a compromise between the safety demands of the International Judo Federation, and the religious demands of Saudi officials. She complied with her nation's demand that she be accompanied by a mahram, in this instance her brother, and had the permission of her father--two men who have also been courageous, when it should have been enough to be proud and supportive.
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shahrkani [standing with her brother] reacts after the women's 78-kg judo competition against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, in London. Photo: Paul Sancya / AP
Some have sniggered that Wojdan's qualification fight lasted lasted only 82 seconds. I celebrate that she arrived, did her best, and bowed out respectfully after her loss--like a sportswoman should!
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani and Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica compete during the women's 78-kg judo competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, in London. Photo: Mike Groll / AP
Wojdan Shaherkani of Saudi Arabia (white) fights against Mojica Melissa of Puerto Rico (blue) during their women's -78kg elimination round of 32 judo matches.(EPA)
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani walks away after her women's +78kg elimination round of 32 judo match against Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica at the London 2012 Olympic Games August 3, 2012.(Reuters)
As a Saudi sportswoman, Wojdan has highlighted--for those who don't know--that they exist, that they can achieve a high level in sport, that they have family support, that they are taking a stand, real and symbolic, by showing up to compete. That should be quite enough as individuals.
To her detractors I say, "What were you accomplishing at 16? Did you singlehandedly turn around your country's social mores and power structures? What are you doing constructively at this moment in time?"
To Wojdan I say, "Brava!!! Congratulations!!! You go girl!!! and Woohoo!!! (a true expression of jubilation, since I never say that)".
Your comments, thoughts, impressions?
Wojdan and Sarah,
May you always walk in joy and peace!