London 2012: Wojdan Shaherkani makes history competing as Saudi Arabia's first ever female Olympic athlete

 

In the end her Olympic début lasted little more than a minute. But for the women of Saudi Arabia it was a revolutionary minute.

History was made this morning when the Gulf Kingdom's first female Olympian athlete took to the judo floor in a brief but deeply significant bout that embodies the fight for gender equality in one of the world's most conservative cultures.

Given that Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani is only a blue belt in the judo, it is perhaps not surprising that she was swiftly dispatched by Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica, a powerfully built US trained judoka who is ranked 24th in the world.

But the very fact that the plucky teenager from Mecca was allowed to represent her country is remarkable given that women are still banned from driving in her homeland and can only leave the house with a male chaperone.

“Certainly being faced with such a large crowd is difficult but manageable,” a rather startled Shaherkani told a phalanx of reporters shortly after the match. “I was a bit scared.”

Her father Ali, who is himself a judo referee, said he “cried like a baby" watching his daughter compete. "She was happy and smiled when she finished the fight. She hugged me and said: 'Daddy, I did this.' I was so proud," he said.

Facing off against a black belt when you are two rungs below and have only played judo for two years would be a daunting task at the best of times. But Shaherkani is battling against more than just inexperience – she is carrying the hopes and expectations of liberal Saudi women on her shoulders.

Just by daring to compete she has squared off against Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative clergy who discourage any female participation in sport. The thought of a woman seeking attention – especially in front of a mixed sex audience – is a taboo too far for many Saudi men and women. Ultra-conservatives began calling her the “Prostitute of the Olympics” just because she was willing to play judo in front of a man.

As she walked towards the judo mat in the ExCel centre shortly after 10:30am this morning, Shaherkani appeared unsteady. But a huge roar of support from the crowd helped her on her way. The cheer she received was as loud as any given to British competitors that morning.

From the start it was clear that she was hopelessly outmatched. Where Mojica was fast and confident, Shaherkani was slow and timid. It wasn't long before the inevitable happened and she was thrown onto her back for ippon – judo's equivalent of a knockout. The bout had lasted just 82 seconds. She left the mat forgetting to bow to her opponent, a major insult in judo culture, but the audience still gave her a standing ovation anyway.

Just getting to the Games was a tortuous journey for Shaherkani – whose age is given as 16 by Olympic organizers, but 17 or 18 by her father, and 19 on the Saudi Olympic website. Saudi Arabia had no intention of fielding any female athletes at this summer's games. But they were effectively embarrassed into submission when it emerged that Brunei and Qatar, the only other nations who had yet to send women to Games, were doing so this time around. Shaherkani and her fellow female Saudi athlete the medium distance runner Sarah Attar were ordered to be accompanied by a male chaperone at all times.

Shaherkani faced a further obstacle. The Saudis would only let her compete if she could wear some form of hijab that covered her hair in its entirety. Even that was radical move. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their faces and hands when they go outside. But Judo's governing boy was concerned any form of head covering could be dangerous. In the end, after a tortuous series of discussions a compromise was reached. Shaherkani stepped out wearing a tightly wound black head-covering, similar to those worn by devout Sikh men and women at sporting events.

As one seasoned judo reporter in the press stands remarked: “Poor girl, all that fuss over nothing. It's a storm in a tea cup and she's a political pawn in the middle of it all.”

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit