The 2012 Olympic Games Make This The “Year Of Women”
As we’re probably all aware by now, the 2012 London Olympic Games have caused this year to be dubbed the “Year of Women.” In addition to the numerous other strides the female gender has apparently made in the last seven months, this year’s Summer Olympics is the first in history to include women on every competing country’s team. There had previously been three holdouts: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. But what circumstances finally led to the inclusion of female athletes from these countries?
Brunei’s Maziah Mahusin was ten seconds away from qualifying in the 400 meter hurdle. Mahusin was also given a wild card, though her country seeks to differentiate itself from Qatar and Saudi Arabia by clarifying that they encourage women to participate in athletics. They say the lack of female competitors is due to the country’s small size and the fact that they had never sent more than one athlete until the previous round of Summer Games in Beijing in 2008, when the country was not allowed to participate due to a registration problem. This, then, marks not only the first year women are sent from Brunei to participate, but the first year Brunei will have a team competing rather than a single athlete.
Saudi Arabia’s female athletes have been far more controversial. Both women entered the Games by unusual means. Women are discouraged from sports for religious reasons, as the clothing would go against what is allowed by strict Muslims. Iran’s women’s soccer team, for example, was forced to drop out of the trials because the Olympic Committee’s rules at the time deemed their head scarves unsafe. Saudi Arabia does not allow women to compete in the trials that would qualify them to go to London, so other paths were taken to find female athletes to compete this year.
In the case of Sarah Attar, that path was dual citizenship. Raised mainly in California, Attar ran track in school, which would not have been allowed had she attended school in Saudi Arabia. Her status as a Saudi citizen allows her to compete, but it is unlikely that any other Saudi women can expect to make it to the Olympic games in the same way. Attar was allowed to train freely because she was in the United States, when the same behavior (wearing running gear, running outside alone, etc.) would likely have landed her in prison in Saudi Arabia.
The other female competitor is Wodjan Shahrkhani, who has never competed before. She is a blue belt, and has been training for the last two years under her father, a judo coach. She has grown up in Saudi Arabia, unlike Attar, but still came by her spot in the Games in a nontraditional way. Since her father was her coach, she was able to train at home rather than joining a class or league.
If not for pressure from human rights organizations and the International Olympic Committee, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have allowed these two women to participate at all. They were threatened with a ban from this year’s Summer Games because of their refusal to admit female athletes spots on the team. Attar and Shahrkhani may not be signs of the nation’s growth in regard to gender equality, but that doesn’t mean they can’t provide hope for the future.
While it would be easy to say that none of these women deserved to go to London because they didn’t make it in the qualifying trials, the matter seems more complex. After all, if no women from these countries ever see themselves represented, they will not see athletics as an option. It is important not to exaggerate the significance of the presence of these women at the Games; it does not mean, for example, that we have reached gender equality in sport. Gender equality in sport does not even exist in nations where all genders supposedly have equal opportunity to play and train: this has been made clear in the recent debate over equal pay at Wimbledon. What is highly significant is the thorough media coverage of these women who have shattered glass ceilings by making it to London. This international coverage may add more pressure to give women in these countries more freedom to play sports. Perhaps these athletes, regardless of how well they do, ought to serve as an inspiration simply because they are the first to go where, hopefully, so many will follow.
Have you been keeping up with the Olympics this year? What do you think of the incredible amount of female representation? Leave us a comment and share!
Written by Emily Yeaton
Header image courtesy of Reuters