Wojdan Shaherkani lost her judo bout Friday in 82 seconds, but that was long enough for the shy teenager to make history.
The first female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete at an Olympics, Shaherkani faced a more experienced fighter from Puerto Rico in the women’s heavyweight class. She managed a few uncertain lunges at her opponent but soon found herself on the mat, flat on her back, eliminated from the competition in the judo equivalent of a knockout.
Afterward, she filed quietly out of London’s Excel Center in a too-big judo uniform and the black hijab, or headscarf, that she had lobbied Olympic officials to let her wear in accordance with the modesty that conservative followers believe Islam asks of women.
But Shaherkani, 16, had already won her challenge against the strictest taboos of Saudi Arabia, one of the Muslim world’s most conservative societies, where the government bans physical education for girls on the grounds that athletics and femininity are incompatible. Hard-line clerics have argued, variously, that sports damages the female psyche, corrupts a girl’s morals and can lead to lesbianism.
So merely by taking the floor, earning a rousing ovation, Shaherkani raised hopes for a breakthrough for women’s rights in her country. Along with another Saudi woman, 800-meter runner Sarah Attar, she’s part of a watershed Olympics where, for the first time, every participating nation has sent a female athlete.
“I am proud to be the first Saudi woman and I’m very thankful for all the audience and all the crowd who supported me and stood behind me,” Shaherkani told reporters after the bout.
Every Olympics produces its share of unlikely heroes who rose from nothing to compete on the world’s biggest stage. Yet it’s hard to believe that any of the 10,000 athletes in London – some of whom are destined for fortunes and Wheaties boxes – overcame greater odds than the big, gentle girl whose birthplace is listed as Mecca.
Not only is P.E. banned for girls in Saudi schools, women aren’t allowed into government-sanctioned sports clubs or most stadiums, even as spectators. They’re also forbidden from pursuing higher education or leaving the country without a man’s written consent.
Yet Shaherkani’s father, a judoka and referee named Ali Siraj, somehow took it upon himself to train his daughter privately. Unlike the rest of the judo field in London, she isn’t a black belt in the Japanese martial art. Her membership on the Saudi team was only announced a few weeks before the games.
The Olympics aren’t a big deal in Saudi Arabia – the quadrennial soccer World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the calendar – but the decision to send Shaherkani and Attar to London drew a torrent of criticism.
First came condemnations for the Saudi sports minister, Prince Nawaf al Faisal, who was accused of kowtowing to the West. One Saudi TV analyst said he’d rather die than see a Saudi woman in the Olympics, wrote Emad al Nafjan, a Saudi women’s activist.
Then came the attacks on the athletes themselves. An Arabic hashtag popped up on Twitter called “Olympic whores.” Shaherkani’s father was the target of comments questioning his manhood.
On July 27, Shaherkani marched in the opening ceremonies wearing glasses and waving a Saudi flag. Her participation was briefly in doubt after the International Judo Federation, the sport’s governing body, ruled that she couldn’t compete wearing the hijab because it would be dangerous in competition. But her supporters appealed and the federation relented, allowing her to compete in a modified version.
“Wojdan remains a winner to me and millions of men AND women around the world,” tweeted Alaa Al-Mizyen, a Saudi youth activist, after the bout.
Shaherkani, for her part, acknowledged she was intimidated by the size of the crowd in the arena. Hani Kamal Najam, the president of the Saudi Arabian Judo Federation, who accompanied Shaherkani, said they didn’t expect the media frenzy.
“She certainly felt the pressure, but she’s handled herself so well and she’s got a great future ahead of her,” he told reporters.
She figures to face challenges back home, where it’s unclear if her participation is a sign of real progress for women or merely a sop by the government to the International Olympic Committee, which has been pressuring Muslim nations in particular to send more women competitors.
Shaherkani, for her part, said she hoped this meant “the beginning of a new era.”
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “Certainly, the Saudi Arabia Judo Federation are delighted that I’ve been able to come here. Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for (women in) other sports also.”
Her opponent, Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico, paid the novice teenager perhaps the greatest respect possible: On the mat, she treated Shaherkani like any opponent.
“In judo,” Mojica said, “only the uniform matters.”