Much has been made of the fact that for the first time in history each country represented at the Olympics includes female team members. Yet questions have been raised regarding the qualifications of some female participants, and one country that has sent women to London actually bans women from participating in athletic events, sporting clubs, or even in physical education n school. So have gains truly been made, or is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) taking credit for gains that are nothing more than superficial attempts to appease critics?
Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have all sent women athletes to the London Games. Hurdler Maziah Mahusin, the only female representative from Brunei, did not technically qualify for the Olympic Games. Her best time in the 400-meter hurdle was short of the Olympic qualifying time by ten seconds. Qatar has sent three female athletes to these Olympics: shooter Bahiya Al-Hamad, swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki. All three women are competing despite the fact that they did not qualify. And Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team includes two women, runner Sarah Attar and judo athlete Wodjan Shahrkhani. Attar has not spent much time in Saudi Arabia. She grew up in southern California, but can compete for Saudi Arabia because she possesses dual citizenship. Shahrkhani lives in the country, but has never actually publicly competed in her sport, since women are prevented from doing so.
All of these women are participating due to allowances made by the IOC. Of course, they are not the only athletes to receive wild cards or special consideration in order to make it to the Olympic Games. And one could argue that even though the participation of these specific women appears questionable, it is a move in the right direction. After all, female athletes who live in countries that do not encourage or support their participation, and in many cases even prevent them from participating in athletics, cannot be expected to compete at the same level as those who have been encouraged and supported in their passion their entire lives.
Yet their participation might also send the wrong message–that women have made tremendous strides in countries like Saudi Arabia–which is simply not true: The two female Saudi athletes in attendance must follow strict guidelines while in London. They cannot mix with men, they must stay with a male guardian, and they must dress modestly: “These are not indications of a nation embracing the opportunity to open the doors to women athletes. By putting women on their Olympic delegation, they simply want to deflect criticism and have no intention of advancing the basic rights of women under their rule” (Lowen).
While I am thrilled to see these women compete, I hope their participation does not make us complacent. In fact, my hope would be that their presence would make us push even harder and louder for the rights of women worldwide.