Solo shots and the Saudi Olympic predicament

As the Hope Solo-Brandi Chastain feud sucks up American media attention in London, the matter of other female athletes touted by Western women’s sports activists has flown under the radar since their notable entrance during the Opening Ceremony Sunday night.

Late yesterday an agreement was reached for Saudi Arabian judoka Wojdan Shaherkani to compete with a hijab, which International Olympic Committee and International Judo Federation officials said presented a safety concern.

The Saudis had threatened to withdraw Shaherkani¬†as a competitor if the IOC and IJF had its way. Her father also objected to her appearance without the headgear that conforms to Islamic prescriptions for women’s clothing.

Under late and reluctant pressure from the IOC, Shaherkani and 800-meter runner Sarah Attar became the first two female Saudi Olympians, prompting happy proclamations in the West that all nations competing in the Olympics included both men and women.

Few noticed that Shaherkani and Attar were not allowed to march with Saudi Arabia’s male Olympians but behind them. And as she marched, Shaherkani, 16, was unsure she would be competing at all.

Attar, 19, has spent her entire life in the United States. Her father is a Saudi national and her mother is American. Born and raised in Escondido, Calif., near San Diego, Attar has dual citizenship and is on the women’s track and cross country team at Pepperdine University. Any photos of her in American-style clothing have been removed at the request of the IOC and she is now seen only in attire that covers her hair, arms and legs.

When both women are set to compete, no doubt the Western media will be fluttering about how the Saudi womens’ appearance will represent more than mere symbolism. But as I wrote recently, the entry of female athletes from the last three gender¬†holdout nations allows Western feminists and human rights activists to tick off a few more items on their gender equity checklist.

Those who track the plight of women in Arab and Muslim nations actively hostile to them having any kind of public existence seriously doubt that this kind of pressure from the West will produce significant cultural change.

You won’t be reading much about those concerns in the American and Western press, which very well may eat up Attar’s All-American attitude. I wish her and Shaherkani well and hope they inspire women of their faith to pursue sports. It’s been encouraging to see the support they’ve received from various corners of the Middle East.

But I’m a bit skeptical of claims that this a “giant leap.”

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