LONDON — The slowest runner in the last women’s 800-meter heat brought the Olympic crowd to its feet Wednesday morning for a sustained ovation. As Sarah Attar sprinted toward the finish nearly 45 seconds behind the winner, the cheers were recognition for the first Saudi Arabian woman to run track at the Games.
“It’s really an incredible experience just to be here,” Attar said moments later as she rushed through the postrace media interview area. Wearing a white hijab head covering, a plain long-sleeved green T-shirt and black leggings, Attar kept moving through the area, looking straight ahead. Asked if she had been told by Saudi officials not to speak with the media, Attar did not respond.
For female athletes from countries that strictly follow Islamic law, progress is slow, complicated, and, it seems, carefully managed. Olympians like Attar simultaneously offer hope of social change through sports and highlight the great distance left to cover in women’s rights.
This year, for the first time in Olympic history, every national delegation sent female athletes to compete, including previous holdouts Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia.
The three Muslim countries were the only national delegations without women entered in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many of the female representatives from Arab nations come from countries with religious and cultural restrictions placed on women that discourage or outright ban sports participation. While female athletes from those nations have found cheering crowds and international attention in London, they often face criticism at home for having athletic ambitions and train under difficult conditions.
By competing on the world’s biggest sports stage, female Olympians from across the Arab world hope to open minds and inspire girls and women back home.
“This means a lot for me and my country,” said sprinter Tahmina Kohistani of Afghanistan. “There were a lot of people who were trying to stop me from training, but I am here. I know having a medal at the Olympics is very difficult, but I am here to open a new way for the women of Afghanistan because in my society there is no sport for females.”
Kohistani added: “I think there is a lot of girls who are praying for me. When I go back home, I’m going to tell all the girls to come and follow me.”
In Saudi Arabia, women are effectively banned from sports because they lack the facilities and opportunities to practice and compete, according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization that investigates human rights abuses. The oil-rich kingdom governed by Islamic law prohibits women from driving and requires women to receive permission from a male guardian to work, travel, study, marry, and access certain medical care. Saudi Arabia did not commit to sending women to the London Olympics until mid-July, about two weeks before the Games started.
Attar, 19, and judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, 16, were selected as the country’s first female representatives.
In traditional Islamic dress with headscarves, Attar and Shahrkhani walked at the back of the Saudi delegation in the Opening Ceremonies. It was the first Olympic milestone for the pair.
Neither Attar nor Shahrkhani qualified for the Olympics, but they received special invitations from the International Olympic Committee designed to encourage wider participation. Attar, born and raised in California, was an average distance runner for Pepperdine University when her invitation came. She has a Saudi father and holds dual US-Saudi citizenship. Shahrkhani was an inexperienced blue belt from a judo-practicing family in Mecca when she received an Olympic berth. She learned the sport from her father.
Before Shahrkhani became the first female Saudi to compete in Olympics, there were intense negotiations between the International Judo Federation and Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee about what type of head covering she could wear. Shahrkhani took the mat for her preliminary round match in the +78 kilogram division with a black bathing cap-like head covering. Overmatched, she lost in 82 seconds.
After the contest, Shahrkhani admitted she was scared by the large crowd at the ExCel Arena, but proud to represent her country.
Given the larger context of discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, David Mepham, called the participation of two Saudi women in the London Olympics “a small step forward.”
Overall, women’s athletics has come a long way from the 1996 Atlanta Games, when 26 countries did not enter women.
“If you look at the London Olympics, you see people all over the world have become engaged in the contests,” said Mepham. “Sports has a way of breaking down barriers that more conventional forms of political change sometimes struggle to do.”
In track and field, shooting, swimming, table tennis, and judo competitions across London, Arab women have gained attention for groundbreaking participation, not where they finish.
Brunei’s Maziah Mahusin and Qatar’s Bahya al-Hamad were flag bearers in the opening ceremonies, adding to their history-making presence in the Games and underscoring their symbolic roles.
“It’s a dream come true for me to be here,” said al-Hamad after finishing 17th in 10-meter air rifle. Al-Hamad and her countrywomen believe their Olympic moments will encourage girls and women back home to try sports.
“Sending a women’s team to the Olympic Games is historic for Qatar,” said Al-Anoud Al-Naimi, a board member of the Qatar Archery and Shooting Association. “More women will definitely take up sports after this in Qatar. I am sure we will have women competing in other sports, too.”
Currently, Qatar has 62 women competing in shooting and archery and Al-Naimi added confidently that “these numbers will rise.” Traveling to the Middle East for competitions, US shooting team member Kim Rhode already has seen significant growth in women’s participation in her sport.
“They come out completely covered and they compete in shotgun and rifle,” said Rhode, a medalist in five consecutive Olympics. “It’s cool to see them be able to do that and to have coaches that are women, too.”
Iraqi sprinter Dana Abdul Razak thought it was cool to share the track with champion US sprinter Allyson Felix. In short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, not bound by the same strict dress code as other Arab women, Abdul Razak placed second in her 100-meter preliminary heat and advanced to the next round. In Round 1, she found herself racing Felix. Although Felix won the heat and Abdul Razak finished last, the Baghdad-based sprinter crossed the line in a respectable personal best of 11.81 seconds. She looked as though she belonged in the race and talked excitedly, emotionally about the experience.
“I’m really happy to be in the Olympics with such world-renowned people,” said Abdul Razak through a translator. “This will benefit the people of the Middle East. Being in a worldwide competition will set an example for them, showing that it is possible to be in such a field.”
She hopes that London is the start of something much bigger, that better resources for training and better results will come in the future.
“It’s quite difficult to get the resources in Iraq,” said Abdul Razak, who was her country’s flag bearer. “But if we had the opportunities they have in other countries like America, if we were given the same opportunities, we could push forward and get an Olympic medal.”
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.