Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani may not be favored to win the gold in the women’s over 78 kg judo competition at this year’s Olympic Games, but she has won her first fight – this one with the International Judo Federation (IJF). Unfortunately in doing so, Shahrkhani was fighting on the side of the repression of women.
The 2012 Olympic Games in London mark the first time that three nations—Brunei, Qatar, and Shahrkhani’s home nation of Saudi Arabia—have allowed women to compete. Sending female athletes to the London Games allows these nations to finally claim that they have met the standards set by the Olympics in the 1900 Paris games where the first women’s events were held. Saudi Arabia, however, dictated that the two women on their Olympic team must wear the hijab, a head scarf, in order to comply with the state’s interpretation of Islam’s mandate of modesty in dress, must be accompanied by a male escort when in public, and must not be allowed contact with male athletes. These rules are a clear sign of the continued contempt for the concept of gender equality by the Saudis and a tacit confession that 1900 is a little too progressive for them.
Late last week, the IJF informed Shahrkhani and Saudi Arabia that she would not be allowed to compete with the hijab, as the rules prohibit head coverings due to safety concerns. The IJF’s rules prohibit head coverings and other items because they could cause a strangulation hazard if accidentally grabbed during the throws and chokeholds that judo employs. This ruling created a furor in the Islamic country, and Shahrkhani’s father declared that she would not be allowed to compete without the illegal garb. The Saudis complained to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which intervened on their behalf with the IJF. Earlier today, it was announced that the IJF has agreed to allow Shahrkhani to compete with her hijab, in direct contravention of its own rules.
By bowing to the demands of the Saudis, the IOC and IJF have become complicit in the blatant sexism of this brand of Islam. In so doing, they have tarnished the bright gold star the IOC hoped to earn by encouraging these last three holdout nations to finally allow women to compete.