Spotlight on Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar marches in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium July 27, 2012. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (BRITAIN)

The smiling faces of Saudi Arabia’s first two female Olympians were on full display as the young women marched in the athletes’ parade during Friday’s opening ceremony. 19-year-old runner Sarah Attar and heavyweight judoka Wojdan Shaharkhani broke barriers to get to London this year, after the International Olympic Committee threatened Saudi Arabia with ban if they didn’t allow women’s participation.

The country agreed not to prevent women from competing, but placed restrictions on their participation. The women would have to be living outside the country, and during the Olympics, must respect the a strict dress code (arms, legs, and head must be covered), remain with escorts at all times, and not interact with men.

In November, it was reported that Saudi equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas would be competing, but after her horse was injured, she was forced to back out, raising questions as to whether the country would send a woman to the Games. In mid-July, it was announced that Attar, a U.S.-born student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and Shahrkhani (about whom relatively little is known) would be heading to London.

Though it seems unlikely that Shaharkhani will compete, the first round of Attar’s discipline—the women’s 800m—is scheduled for August 8.

For a history of women’s participation in the Olympics, check out this Al-Monitor original.