Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani returns to Saudi Arabia as the first woman to represent the Kingdom in judo, but while her participation has been celebrated globally the domestic reaction to her accomplishment has ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile. Her father, a judo referee who said he wanted his daughter to make "new history for Saudi's women," is reportedly incensed at conservative Saudis who showered her with racial slurs on Twitter and called her a “prostitute” for participating.
The Kingdom bent to a combination of international pressure and the increasingly powerful Saudi vox populi by announcing—just a month before the Games began—that Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar, a California born-and-bred track runner at Pepperdine with dual citizenship, would compete at the Games. But while the decision was a baby step toward gender equality for the approximately 11 million women and girls who call Saudi Arabia home, the move trigged a powerful conservative backlash from clerics and others.
Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Brunei, allowed female athletes to compete at the Olympics for the first time in London, but the Kingdom’s move seemed intended more to draw a new line than to allow for further reform. Qatar, a small nation with a rising diplomatic star that is often seen as a pernicious irritation by the Kingdom, is home to Al Jazeera and in 2022 will become the first Muslim nation to host the FIFA World Cup (their bid assured that soccer fans would be able to drink beer at matches). To prepare for that moment, the state has already begun massive statewide investment in sporting facilities and programs, including one for female athletes. Unlike the Kingdom, both Qatar and Brunei had already sent women to the Islamic Women’s Games.
Even as the pressure builds for Saudi Arabia to allow women to participate or risk becoming an outlier even in the Islamic world—Iran and Yemen have women’s soccer teams, for instance—the state has tried to hold the line. Its Olympic athletes have barely been brought up in the state-sanctioned press, and much of the Twitter conversation about them has been hostile. Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, a devastating report by Human Rights Watch details the profoundly deviant yet tenaciously held religious objections of Saudi clerics to women engaging in sports. Allowing Saudi girls and women to compete would invite them to engage in immodest movement, aberrant clothing, and performances in front of unrelated males that would lead to immorality and desecration of the purity of the Saudi female, influential clerics insist. They argue that vigorous movement is a threat to the health and honor of the "virgin girl," a profound deterrent in a shame-and-honor-centered culture that places extraordinary value on the intact hymen of an unmarried woman.
Dr. Mohammad al-Arifi, an influential cleric who preaches at Al-Bawardi Mosque in Riyadh, is on faculty at King Saud University, warned Prince Nawaf against sending Saudi women to the Olympics:
“Women practicing sports … is fundamentally allowed … but if this leads to mixing with men … or revealing private parts … or men watching her sometimes run, sometimes fall down … sometimes laugh and sometimes cry or quarrel with another female athlete … or mount a horse … or practice gymnastics … or wrestling … or other sports … while the cameras film and the [television] channels broadcast … then there can be no doubt that it is forbidden.”
The state’s gender apartheid is powerful. While Saudi men and boys can attend any of 153 official sports clubs, regulated by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, as well as innumerable gyms and spas, Saudi women and girls have no place to play. Even in the days running up to the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, efforts by Saudis within the Kingdom to arrange sporting activities for girls and women to celebrate Ramadan were met by firm official rebukes.
When techno-billionaire Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal sponsored Saudi Arabia’s first female soccer team, the Jeddah Kings, in 2009, an intense public backlash triggered by hostile press coverage forced the Warren Buffett of the East to retreat and dismantle the team. Today, only Jeddah United exists, an independent and private women’s sports company with a female basketball team that functions without royal patronage or the support of the General Presidency for Youth Welfare.
When I lived in the Kingdom more than a decade ago, I was in the privileged position to be able to afford the significant cost and considerable risk of defying the regime’s restrictions on women playing sports. For a few hours a week, along with several other expatriates, I found temporary reprieve from physical inactivity at a discreet stable, the International Equestrian School, in the Malaaz district of Riyadh, which also housed the city’s largest prison. Careful not to end up on the wrong side of the law, we paid a costly membership, relied on Zachariah, our trusted driver, and concealed our jodhpurs and boots under abayyahs and veils. On arrival, greeted by the Sudanese gatekeeper Musa, we were quickly ushered into the female arena (much smaller than the floodlit male arena) where we would quickly disrobe, and, for brief snatched hours, airborne on horseback, return to the forgotten selves we had left outside the Kingdom.
The Kingdom’s imposed paralysis and concealment of women is an entirely artificial, modern Saudi construct that not only has no basis in Islam but directly contravenes its ideals. The thrill of physical activity, perversely forbidden by the Saudi government, was one Muslim women have long known. There was no immobilization of women in the early Islamic era. The Prophet’s wife was famed (as recorded in the Hadith) for her playful races against her husband the Prophet—who called play and folly with one's spouse integral to a happy and fulfilled Muslim marriage.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s reversal to allow women to compete in the Olympics reveals a fundamental truth: the Kingdom recognizes its restrictions are increasingly difficult to defend on the world stage, or even in the Muslim world. It is from this moment that the marathon toward broader change can finally begin.