Wojdan Shaherkani is one of Saudi Arabia's 2 female Olympians (AFP photo)The world's eyes saw Wojdan Shaherkani in a TV close-up on Friday during the Olympic Opening Ceremony amid a worldwide love-in over the progress represented by having every country send female athletes to the Games. Meantime, away from the cameras, there's a potential international incident in the making surrounding the 18-year-old judoka, one of the two women the conservative Islamic country added to its Olympic team after some serious arm-twisting by IOC president Jacques Rogge.
On Thursday, the International Judo Federation ruled that Shaherkani "will fight according to the principle and spirit of judo, so without a hijab." This is conflicts with a precedent set by some regional judo federations which have permitted Muslim women to wear the traditional headscarf; the world governing body for soccer, FIFA, has also approved headscarves. The judo federation's decision has Saudi Arabia threatening to pull out of the Games.
The International Olympic Committee has organised an urgent meeting with Saudi Arabia national Olympic committee officials, the international judo federation, and London Olympic organisers to try and avert the Saudi withdrawal."Yes we have heard that the Saudis are not happy and we will have an urgent meeting, certainly in the next two days," an IOC spokesperson told Telegraph Sport.
The issue is particularly sensitive as the IOC president Jacques Rogge had spent many months attempting to ensure Saudi Arabian women were participating in the London Games, despite initial reticence by the Saudi royal family.
Saudi Arabia had been the only country which appeared not to be sending any female athletes to the Games. (The Telegraph)
Curiously, Shaherkani doesn't even have a black belt and thus falls into the category of Olympians who are there more to take part than to contend for anything. Without taking sides here — the principle here is not to criticize what one cannot really understand from the vantage point of a secular Western nation such as Canada — it should be emphasized this is a move in the "opposite direction" of most sports which have accommodated Muslim women. People also need to know that Shaherkani and Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar have been vilified for having the temerity to compete in sports as women, although many have also rallied around them and are trying to identify the Twitter user who referred to them as "prostitutes."
This, sadly, is not the only culture clash taking place in the judo arena. The Lebanese judokas have also refused to train alongside Israel, prompting officials to put up a divider. Rogge might have to use a firm but deft hand to make sure every country's female athletes each get to participate, lest the IOC's good intentions fall apart.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.