JEDDAH — It was over in 82 seconds, but those seconds made history for all women in Saudi Arabia.
Wojdan Shahrkhani made headlines Friday as she walked into the sprawling ExCel Center in London to compete against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, a well-built US-trained judoka who is ranked 24th in the world.
Despite her loss, Shahrkhani — who has only a blue belt — perhaps doesn’t realize that she made history and became an inspiration for Saudi women, who now, have hope for change in a country where fitness centers are not permitted to open unless under a hospital supervision and permit. “I’m really happy to be at the Olympics and proud to represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and thank all those who stood by me,” Shahrkhani told Reuters.
“I was afraid when I came out into the arena but I was happy when I heard the cheering,” she said.
However, many members of society considered her participation and that of Sara Attar an affront to the country’s traditions with one Twitter user creating a hashtag that questioned the girls’ morals and another hashtag Friday under Wojdan Shahrkhani’s name criticizing her performance and making racist comments.
Commenting on the ethnocentric remarks against Shahrkhani on Twitter, Yasin Alireza, a Jeddah-based businessman, said, “This expresses their bankrupt minds.”
Anas Khashoggi, founder of Anas Ghalib Khashoggi Sweet Factory, supported the teenagers’ participation in the Olympics. He was also critical of the hate campaign against Shahrkhani and described it as unfortunate.
Omar Johani, a 29-year-old engineer from the Eastern Province, called her a “hero”.
“Maybe the only athlete in the Olympics so far who’s facing some negative comments from her own society. Standing up to them is brave,” Johani said.
He also said that her dad is a hero too for training her on her own to represent Saudi Arabia, which lacks an infrastructure for sports. “She has broken a taboo. Sports for women will improve now. She made history indeed. She can say ‘I’m the first Saudi woman to take part in the Olympics’,” he added.
Rasha Saifuddin, a 28-year-old new media masters student in the UK, said that Shahrkhani’s participation itself is a gain for women in our society and a step to encourage them to exercise and a call to open fitness centers for women.
“Insisting to participate with hijab is an evidence that religion was not an obstacle as many people who were against her participation claimed,” she said.
Abdullah Bakheet, a 23-year-old chemist, said that Saudis had been anticipating the announcement of female athletes taking part in the Olympics and now since it’s done, “there is no way back.”
“Now, the future will be bright for Saudi female athletes and we will take care of them,” Bakheet said. Bakheet who watched Shahrkhani’s match said that when she entered the hall and they announced that she is the first Saudi female to be participating, the crowd gave her a big round of applause.