"Olympic Pictogram by Felipe Menegaz"

Olympic Pictogram by Felipe Menegaz

One of the remarkable achievements of this year’s Olympics is that Saudi Arabia, for the first time ever, had 2 young women entered with their other athletes in search of the perfection of sport.

The commendable effort was almost immediately challenged. The 2 women were given separate housing to keep them from being in the company of men; they would each have a guardian to accompany them wherever they went at the Olympics. And you know what? I can live with that. I know that Saudi women always have a male accompanying them when they go out at home. So that’s acceptable to me. We all have to compromise, right?

But the going got tough when the overseer of their chosen sport, the International Judo Federation, wouldn’t allow the women to compete in the games if they were wearing their Hijab, saying that the women needed to accept the principles and spirit of Judo. Now I’m not up on my Judo rules, but I have to wonder if there is indeed such a clause in the definition of this group. I have to wonder just what this ‘spirit’ really means.

The Judo people say that the rules are there for safety reasons. Right. Strangely though, wearing a hijab has been accepted for competition and in the spirit of track and field and fencing, both disciplines being more physically demanding than Judo.

Hijabs are very much like a headscarf. We’re not talking about either a Burka or Niqab, both of which cover the whole body of a woman, top to bottom, including her face with only a small screen for her to see out of. If this were the case, I could understand that there may be some safety issues.

But safety issues with a head scarf? Come on. Give yourself a shake Judo Federation. These women have been practicing for months to be part of this year’s Olympics and they’ve been practicing with their Hijabs on.

The mere fact that this nation, Saudi Arabia, is allowing its women to compete for the first time in the Olympics is such a benchmark for gender equality in a country where gender equality is unknown, it deserves 110% of the support it requires.

The bad guy here is the Judo Federation. And I have to wonder why they’re being so rigid. Is it even possible that in this day and age, there are groups that remain sexist in their ‘spirit’? What kind of spirit can it be if it excludes anyone, particularly on the basis of gender discrimination?

Maybe the International Judo Federation needs to consider removing this page from its website, a page dated July 18th…”Saudi Female Judoka to Compete in London 2012. The IOC is pleased to announce that it has received confirmation from the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee that two female athletes will compete for Saudi Arabia at the London Games this summer.”

Maybe the International Judo Federation needs to join the rest of the world in welcoming these brave young pioneer women.

©Marcia Barhydt, 2012

PS: We all like a happy ending, so I’m delighted to report…
A compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab, a tight-fitting black cap, so she could compete. After the match, Shahrkhani looked to the future, both for her and many other women in her country.”Hopefully,” she said, “this is the beginning of a new era.”