An Unlikely Arab Princess

Posted on August 12, 2012 in Specials, Sports

By Saurabh Thapa:

Scanning across the similarities, it’s not rare to encounter factors that make a talent show and The Olympics appear alike; say for example, the zeal emanating from a stadium deluging audience, massive influx of sponsorships, formation of fan groups that would kill the birds of another feather if they are unfortunately not flocked together. But the one aspect that makes sponsors and fans alike spend precious currency is the thrill of anticipation: the element of surprise. So far, The Olympics doesn’t disappoint, especially the countries participating in it. And by ‘countries’ my direct implication is Saudi Arabia.

Surprise number one: from the only country where women by virtue of their sex cannot drive, two Olympians ‘fly’ to London. Surprise number two: one of them is not even seventeen. And when you thought your feeble heart has had enough shocks for the day, the mother of all shocks happens: the adolescent Olympian is under-trained; even missing out on the minimum requirement of eligibility. But under the obligation of the Olympics authority, Saudi Arabia had to send its best for the Judo event. And thus the world got to witness Olympics debutant Wojdan Shahrkhani: the first woman to embody Saudi Arabia at the Olympics and the only blue-belt amidst tough black-belts from around the world.

Media captured the history in making as Shahrkhani took on the 13th strongest judo fighter in the world, Melissa Mojica, in a rather swift tournament. Later in an interview, the Olympian from Puerto Rico confessed that she felt sympathetic towards her bluntly skilled opponent. Yet, as seldom as it may occur, in the fateful evening of 3rd August, 2012 the victor was outdone by the vanquished. Perhaps it was the hype surrounding the ‘Hijab’, both Shahrkhani and the Saudi Arabia Sports Authority insisted Shahrkhani must don to ensure her ‘dignity’ and ‘values’ aren’t tainted. What neither realized was that the harm to a sternly patriarchal society was already done.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new era” said a satisfied Shahrkhani. Luckily, there are people in her motherland who second this prospect. Un-luckily though, such optimists constitute the minority. From calling her ‘The prostitute of Olympics’ to justifying her condemnation from achieving nirvana by citing the holy book, the society back home has lambasted Shahrkhani and her family. Stringent rules that encourage the subjugation of the ‘fairer sex’ have been marring the nation, preventing women athletes to toughen up like their male counterparts. “There is a very fine line between religion and culture and customs. People are holding so tightly to customs and traditions and using Islam to defend them,” says Alaa al-Mizyen from Egypt, which also happens to be an Islamic state.

The segregation between the sexes is appalling. The entrance to public places is different for men and women. Public sphere of a house, like the living room, is considered a man’s domain while the women must seek refuge in kitchens and bedrooms. Under such rigid regulations, how can a woman athlete realize her true potential? The west has had its share of feminist agitations that has lead to parity between the sexes today, but Saudi Arabia seems ages behind this epiphany. Basic workout regimes that even a novice athlete must follow, like jogging, is too ideal a facility for women.

Granted that the inclusion of women athletes was an obligation, but that is not an excuse of letting under-trained athletes (the best they have) represent the country in a prestigious international event. The wall of segregation needs to be brought down to a fence and eventually removed all-together. That shall ensure quality training to both the sexes. Otherwise, diligent athletes, under the fatwa issued by the clerics, would spend most of their valuable time lactating and giving the dairy product to their brothers for their acceptance, in hope of enjoying the same facilities the male athletes wallow in. This act of fraternizing will only drain them dry, both metaphorically and literally.

[box color=”white” icon=”accept”]The writer is a student of English Literature at Ramjas College, University of Delhi[/box]