THERE IS one more thing to look forward to at this year’s Olympics: the unprecedented participation of women from every nation. Sixteen years ago, at the Olympics in Atlanta, only 26 nations had female athletes. But if one looked further back to the year 1908, the London Games saw only 1.8 per cent female participation. But according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), since then The Olympic Games has been witnessing a slow but steady rise with the Beijing Olympics seeing more that 42 per cent female participation.
This year, however, the London Olympics will have the distinction of being the first to include female athletes from every competing nation with Saudi Arabia lifting the ban on women’s participation in the Games and sportswomen from Brunei and Qatar also taking part in athletics, swimming, table tennis and shooting for the first time in history.
Saudi Arabia will be sending two female athletes to compete in the London 2012 Games. Sarah Attar will compete in the 800m race, while Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will be battling in the judo competition. IOC President Jacques Rogge has termed this as “very positive news” and “an encouraging evolution”, while Human Rights Watch has deemed this as a significant step forward for women in the Gulf state.
The fact that Muslim states are now giving their women opportunities to showcase their talent and physical endurance on an international platform is a very encouraging development. But more importantly, ordinary Muslim women will have the chance to represent themselves on a global platform.
When it comes to women in Saudi Arabia, the world’s knowledge about them is intimately shaped by the law preventing women to drive in the Gulf state. Apart from the few Saudi royals like Ameerah Ali Taweel — Prince Al Waleed bin Talal’s wife — and others who have publicly spoken for women in the Kingdom, the outside world has little idea what the average Saudi female is like. For foreigners —especially Westerners— the ordinary Saudi woman cuts a sorry figure; she lacks a voice and is stifled by the patriarchal society. But the truth is that the world doesn’t know what an ordinary female from the Gulf state is really like.
But now ordinary Saudi women will have a great opportunity to represent themselves and project an image of their country that goes beyond conventional stereotypes. Thus, hopefully the world, for once, will be able to look past the image of an oppressed Muslim woman.