Saudi Arabia’s first female athlete, Wojdan Shaherkani, loses in first Olympic competition

The women’s judo, 172-pound-plus elimination match Friday morning may have been one of quickest matches of the tournament, but what it represented was much more than winning a medal.  Wojdan Shaherkani, 16, from Saudi Arabia, was the first of two women ever to represent her country in the Olympics.  Her compatriot, Sarah Attar, will being competing next week as a runner in the 800-meter.  It also marked the first time every country sent at least one woman from their country to the Olympics.

“I’m excited and proud to be representing my country,” Shaherkani said in a statement released after the match. “Unfortunately I lost, but I’ll do better next time.”

Saudi women live with strict guidelines in every aspect of their public and private lives.  It is required that they have a male relative’s permission for them to travel abroad, work, marry, divorce or even get treatment from certain hospitals.  Arabia is also the only country that does not allow women – domestic and foreign – from driving.  The restrictions almost kept Shaherkani from competing, but a compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials cleared the way for her.

“We are very proud of her being a woman in the Olympics,” said Hani Kamal Najm, the president of the Saudi Arabia Judo and Taekwondo Federation. “Certainly it’s a good start, and hopefully it will progress from here onward.”

Also adding to the strict code the women have to live under, Judo is also particular about their dress code.  It is so strict, that there is even a section on yarn count and that head coverings could present safety issues for a sport with so much grappling.  But during the week the Saudi and international judo federations agreed to let her compete with a modified hijab.

Shaherkani’s first competition was against Puerto Rico’s, Melissa Mojica, who is also ranked 24th in the world for her weight class.  Shaherkani would not last more than 82 seconds on the mat as she was completely over matched.  The Saudi looked cautious on her feet not making any moves to grab Mojica’s uniform and making little attempt to throw her off balance.

Shaherkhani is only a blue belt, even though she wore black to her match, and was also trained by her father.  But she was overmatched due to lack of experience in fighting in competition.  After being taken down, Shaherkhani rose to her feet as the crowd erupted for the historical moment they just witnessed.

I am happy to be at the Olympics,” she whispered in Arabic, her father holding both her arms. “Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation.”

When she returns home, Shaherkani and her family still may face ostracism from members of their community for her competing in the Olympics.  The difficulties she could face are just the beginning of some of the limited reforms King Abdullah has been pushing.  The women of Saudi Arabia have already been promised with the ability to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015 and a new university will allow men and women to study together in contrast to the strict separation of the sexes across the kingdom.  With allowing Shaherkani to compete in the games is an extension of the reforms and great stride for all women of Saudi Arabia.