Saudis Split on Female Olympians, Athletic Hijabs

Written by Richard S. Willis
Thursday, August 02, 2012

Women otherwise involved in rights issues don’t necessarily support Olympic participation

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – In this bustling, overcrowded city on the Red Sea, the 2012 London Olympics hardly raises an eyebrow although seventeen men and two women are participating. But the debate over whether Saudi Arabia’s two female athletes – Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani – should compete, let alone abandon the hijab head covering to conform to the Olympic International Conference’s rules, is unsurprisingly divided along gender lines.

The debate has been reduced to name-calling with a number of Saudis describing Attar and Shaherkani the “prostitutes of the Olympics.” It has highlighted the ongoing issues regarding a woman’s place in Saudi society.

“There are not many Saudi fathers and brothers who want to see the women in their family compete on a pitch or in an arena with thousands of men staring at them,” Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, an unemployed car salesman told The Media Line. “What does that say about the woman who exposes herself in such a way?”

Attar, 19, who is attending Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, is competing in the women’s track 800 meters. Shaherkani, 16, is participating in the women’s judo event. Shaherkani garnered the most attention since the opening day of the Olympics when the International Judo Federation banned Shaherkani from competing because her hijab posed a safety risk. Following negotiations between Shaherkani’s father, the OIC and the federation, the federation ruled the girl may participate wearing “suitable headgear.”

Wearing the hijab was an issue taken out of Shaherkani’s hands. The Saudi government made it clear that women can compete only if they “wear suitable clothing that complies with Sharia (Islamic law), are accompanied by their guardian and they do not mix with men during the games.”

However, the hijab controversy, while seized by women’s rights activists as another infringement on Saudi female athletes, prompted little outcry among women in Saudi Arabia. Rather, the issue boils down to what is appropriate behavior.

Abeer Al-Hussaini received her bachelor’s degree from a Florida university. The 26-year old wears her hijab loosely and considers herself liberal on social issues. Yet, she says her advocacy for women in Saudi society has its limits. “I wish the girls in the Olympics well, but it’s not something I would do. And even if I did, my father would not even consider it. There is too much at stake. Even if my family supported my right to compete in sports, our relatives, our neighbors would condemn it. There is too much at stake. It just does not affect me but my entire family.”

Indeed social pressure is immense to toe the line. While societal pressure provides checks and balances to ensure conformity and stability, the burden usually falls on women.

A woman lecturer at Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University outside of Riyadh, told The Media Line that traditions and customs are so entrenched in Saudi society that few women have the strength to break the bonds that establish their roles in society.

“Forget about Islam,” said the academic who spoke on the condition that her name not be published. “The traditional roles of men and women are clearly defined with men providing the financial means for the family and women providing babies and a nice home. That’s changing with better educational opportunities for women and new jobs for them.”

However, she noted that women drawing attention to themselves is a “red line” that few Saudi women are willing to cross.

“It’s almost incomprehensible to the average Saudi to see a beloved daughter on television parading on the field for all to see,” she said. “It is too much for family members to see their daughters exerting themselves in some outfit even remotely form-fitting. It is a big shame for the family. As hard as it is to understand, it boils down to ‘what will the neighbors think’ ”

What the neighbors think is found on social media websites. In addition to labeling Saudi female athletes as prostitutes, one Twitter writer suggested that Attar would purposely fall down while running to show off her body.

Many Saudis, however, were quick to defend the athletes. @SkittlesFairy responded to a critic by writing, “You remind me of Europe in the Dark Ages, you insult this and slur people in the name of religion. This religion has nothing to do with you.”

Saudi Rasha Al-Dowasi, tweeting as @Rsha_D, wrote, “Muslim athletes from Muslim countries have been participating in the Olympics for years. Sport only becomes prostitution when Saudi women practice it.”

Khalid Khalifa, who describes himself as a Saudi comedian on his Twitter profile as @KhalidKhalifa, wrote, “The person who made this Hashtag (“Prostitutes of the Olympics”) is a reminder: idiots still exist. He/She should be neutered. This gene cannot evolve.”

The Princess Nora University academic cautioned against taking Twitter flame wars as an accurate pulse of Saudis.

“Most Saudis have never left the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates), or even Saudi Arabia,” the academic said. “They don’t read or watch the Western media; they don’t tweet, watch the Olympics or even think about the women’s rights in the same context as Westerners do. There is a right and wrong. And displaying your body immodestly is wrong.”

Summer Khoury, a Palestinian expatriate who works for a charity organization in Jeddah, told The Media Line that she wants to see more Arab women represented in the Olympics, but understands Saudis’ trepidation with women’s participation.

“Things here in Saudi Arabia are moving very fast,” Khoury said. “There is an explosion of women working in the shops and malls, and even mixing with men. It was unheard of just a few years ago. When society shifts so rapidly, you have people lash out crudely. But it’s just the process how a society evolves.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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