The Powerful Women Judokas of the Middle East and North Africa

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Soraya Haddad of Algeria back flips after defeating Sholpan Kaliyeva of Kazakhstan during their women’s -52kg bronze medal judo match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 10, 2008. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

In the UK’s Telegraph today, sports columnist Andrew M. Brown opines that it’s “disturbing” to watch female judokas “beat each other up.” Brown, acknowledging that his forthcoming comment will sound “appallingly sexist,” says it anyway: that he “couldn’t help wondering about [the judokas’] soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises.”

Brown’s statement—which is appallingly sexist indeed—needs no comment. Women’s judo, which was first introduced in 1988 as a demonstration sport, and made official in the 1992 Games, has become increasingly popular over the years, with women from more than 30 countries in every region of the world competing in London across seven weight categories.

Algeria (one of whose competitors, 2008 bronze medalist in the -52kg weight class Soraya Haddad, is nicknamed the “Iron Lady of El Kseur”), Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia have sent judokas (nearly all of whom are under 30, and two of whom are teenagers) to compete in the women’s events this year. Though thus far none have had much success—all of the weight categories except the women’s +78kg have concluded competition—their participation demonstrates just how popular the sport is becoming.

In the +78kg competition, which is scheduled for tomorrow Turkey’s Gulsah Kocaturk, and Tunisia’s Nihel Rouhou Cheikh, and Algeria’s Sonia Asselah have a shot at medaling. Also competing is one of Saudi Arabia’s two inaugural female Olympians, Wojdan Shaherkani, a 16-year-old judoka who was invited to participate by the IOC and recently emerged triumphant after a dispute as to whether she’d be allowed to wear her hijab. 16-year-old Shaherkani, who does not hold a black belt, is not expected to medal; in fact, some of her peers expressed concern at allowing her participation. Her competing nonetheless represents a significant step for Saudi Arabia, which still disallows women’s participation in school sports.

Women from the region have medaled in judo before: In 1992, Israeli middleweight Yael Arad brought home silver (and became the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal) and Turkish extra lightweight Hülya Şenyurt a bronze. Algeria’s Soraya Haddad scored a bronze in Beijing in 2008.

The International Judo Federation recently had this to say about women’s participation in the sport:

Our top female athletes are amongst the fittest and strongest in the world and we aim to use them along with other women as roles models to promote our sport and to use judo to empower women and girls. Women will not do this alone we need the support of our male judoka as only by working together successfully can we remove the barriers to gender equality that still exist.

In the end, tomorrow’s Women’s +78kg competition could mean another medal for the region. What’s more empowering than that?