As the Olympics heat up, we’re continuing our profiles of the amazing women who have helped make the games what they are today!
You may have heard of Halet Cambel, who was the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics, an archeologist by day and fencer by night from, hailing from Turkey. Cambel’s bravery and strength led the way for athletes such as Sarah Attar and Wojdan Seraj Abdulrahim, who made history in 2012 on behalf of the notoriously misogynistic Saudi Arabia, by being their first female representatives at the Olympics.
But somewhere between Cambel and the two lady Olympians representing Saudi Arabia today we look to a Muslim woman by the name of Nawal El Moutawakel. El Moutawakel was the first Muslim woman to be an Olympic gold medalist.
Unlike many women from Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, where she grew up, El Moutawakel began honing her skills at a very young age. Her parents believed in treating their sons and daughters equally, and all their children participated in track and field. It became clear that El Moutawakel was a natural at hurdles, and her talent caught the attention of Iowa State University couches who offered her a scholarship to travel to the United States and study at ISU while hurdling.
Just like sports, education was very important for her parents, especially her father who ultimately made the begrudging and rightfully nervous decision to let his daughter to travel to the US for this opportunity. Not a week later, El Moutawakel’s father died in a fatal car crash.
Even while dealing with the grief of losing her father, whose outlooks were a true rarity in Morocco, eight months later El Moutawakel went on to win First Place in the 400 meter hurdles and become the first Muslim woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal.
El Moutawakel beat her personal best by .76 seconds and made history in the 1984 Los Angeles Games when she won the 400m hurdles race. With that Olympic win she earned the title of not only first Muslim woman to become an Olympic gold medalist, but also the first African woman to win a gold medal. Her win prompted the careers of dozens of Muslim women after her. She shattered the stereotypes the world had about not only Muslim women — oppressed women who are stuck under a patriarchal society and desperately needed the help and assistance of the rest of the modernized, Western World. El Moutawakel’s historic win proved that Muslim women can fight for themselves, and paved the way for the likes of Ruqaya Al Ghasara, a Bahraini woman who denounced Muslim fundamentalists and blew the minds of Western feminists. In 2004, Al Ghasara competed in the Athens games wearing a full hijab, the first female athlete to do so at the Olympics.
El Moutawakel’s 1984 win made waves around the globe, but the biggest impact came in El Moutawakel’s own country. El Moutawakel reported that King Hassan II called her as soon as she crossed the finish line to give his congratulations. She recounts that the king said to her “I am so proud of you. The entire country is going wild. This victory has made us all so happy and proud of you.” This even resulted in King Hassan II declaring all girls born on the day of her victory must be named in her honor.
Since then, El Moutawakel has championed female athletes all over the world. She is a member of multiple international athlete organizations, including the International Amateur Athletic Federation, and was selected to be a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1998. El Moutawakel was president of the selection committee for the London Games and subsequently achieved another first as a Muslim woman on that committee.
Feminspire salutes Nawal El Moutawakel as a part of our ongoing series celebrating the past female Olympians for leading the way for female athletes everywhere!
Have you been enjoying watching the incredible female athletes at the Olympics this year? Who are you rooting for? Who do you hope to see make history? Leave us a comment and share!
Written by Alicia Perez