The appearance of Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympic athletes at the Games’ opening ceremony prompted a heated online debate on Saturday, with some conservative Islamists denouncing the women as shameless but many praising them.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, who is to compete in the +78kg judo category, and 800 metre runner Sarah Attar marched behind the men in their national delegation during the ceremony in London on Friday.
Conservative Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia oppose women’s sport, arguing that it is immodest and goes against their nature.
“One should not hesitate to describe their participation as shameful and a great sin,” Khaled al-Jabri, whose Twitter profile listed him as a Saudi from Jeddah, wrote on Saturday in one of thousands of postings on the subject that ran in the hours after the ceremony.
“They want to run so that they intentionally fall down and reveal (their figures),” said a tweeter under the name @mloven2100, who identified himself as a Saudi.
But supporters of the athletes posted messages in their defence.
“I’m proud of Saudi women’s participation in the Olympics,” wrote Fahad al-Enzi, a member of a prominent Saudi tribe whose profile listed him as from Riyadh.
A woman who identified herself as Safaa, a Saudi, tweeted: “Women walking behind the Saudi delegation is historic. Next we’ll be carrying the flag and walking side by side, equal.”
Before this year Saudi Arabia was one of three countries, alongside Brunei and Qatar, never to have sent female athletes to the Olympics. The latter two confirmed earlier this year that their delegations would include women.
Saudi Arabia reached an agreement on the participation of Shaherkani and Attar just two weeks ago in talks with the International Olympic Committee. Human rights groups had urged the IOC to ban the country from the Games unless it agreed to send women.
Riyadh’s decision followed a series of cautious steps expanding women’s rights over the past 18 months. King Abdullah, who has a reputation as a reformer, last year announced plans to let women vote in municipal council elections and join the consultative Shoura council.
Despite the continued controversy within Saudi Arabia over women’s participation in the Olympics, prominent clerics have not criticised it publicly, apparently because they feel it would be risky to challenge a government decision affecting the country’s international image. King Abdullah has in the past fired clerics who criticised reform plans involving women.
Complete agreement has still not been reached on the ground rules for Shaherkani’s participation. A Saudi official told Reuters earlier this month that the women would have to obey the dress code of Islamic law, and on Friday, Shaherkani and Attar wore hijabs or Islamic headscarfs.
On Thursday, however, International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer said Shaherkani would have to fight without a hijab to comply with “the principle and spirit of judo”.
Shaherkani is due to compete in the women’s heavyweight tournament next Friday, and her participation could now be in doubt. IJF spokesman Nicolas Messner told Reuters that talks were underway between the Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee, the IOC and the IJF to try to resolve the issue.
There was no comment on the issue from government or Olympic officials in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.