While it is wonderful to see the amount of press attention generated by Sarah Attar and her appearance this week as the first Saudi women to compete in the Olympics, she is actually the second woman to do so.
Several days before Attar stepped onto the track, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani entered the Judo ring for an 82 second match. She was swiftly defeated. Like Attar, she had no hope of winning against her far more advanced opponent. However, unlike Attar, Wodjan actually lives and trains in her restrictive homeland of Saudi Arabia.
For these two reasons alone Wodjan deserves full recognition for the accomplishment, not Attar. Attar lives in the United States, studies at a well-known university, and can receive high-level training. She has no societal restrictions and is blessed with positive media that seeks to applaud her endeavors.
Attar is, of course, a trailblazer even though she has little daily connection to Saudi Arabia; she wears the modest dress and hijab only because of pressure from the Saudi Olympic Committee.
Wodjan, however, actually trains in Saudi Arabia with her father and will have to return to face a hostile Saudi media and public. In the lead-up to and during the games, she was roundly abused by Saudi Twitter users, who used the hashtag of “Olympic Prostitute.”
Instead of praise, Wodjan will return to a country where she faces a social stigma; to a country where women still have nearly no sports facilities, teams or physical education; and to a country that continues to deprive many women of their very basic human rights.
Even though Wodjan’s father is a judo referee and can help her train at home, she has no access to public sports facilities. She is also unlikely to have any sort of physical education at her school since few public schools teach it to girls. In short, this brief appearance at the 2012 Olympics may also be her last.
Sadly, despite the fact that she was actually the first Saudi woman athlete to participate in the Olympics, Wodjan has been eclipsed has by Sarah Attar. It is a shame that Attar has been the main focus for most Western media, but it’s not a surprise. American born and educated, she fits the profile of a liberated English speaking trailblazer.
Let us celebrate both of these women for their willingness to come forward and act as ambassadors for their country. Let’s also remember that Wodjan has to return to a land lacking basic freedoms that many women in the rest of the world take for granted.