Most athletes don’t make history when they come in last or garner a standing ovation after being easily defeated by a far superior athlete. We’ve seen this happen with a few female athletes during the London Olympics. These are women who are pioneers and inspirations for countless women, even though they never had a shot at Olympic medals. They are female athletes who endured discrimination and abuse in order to become the first women to compete for their respective countries. These are countries that subjugate women and allow them very few rights, but had one major blow against their sexist regimes and laws when they had female athletes represent them on the global stage.
This was the first Olympic Games where every country had a female athlete on the team. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, there were only 26 countries that had women competing, but now 44% of the athletes are females. This is the first time the ultra-conservative Islamic countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain brought female athletes. It took great pressure from the IOC, and the countries’ views of women haven’t changed. But these female athletes were given the chance to compete on the biggest global stage.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, at 16 years old, became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympics when she took on Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica in a 78kg judo match. She was soundly defeated in under 90 seconds, and it actually only took one move. Shahrkhani was greeted by a standing ovation before and after the match because the audience recognized the battle she won to even compete on the global stage. Her nation’s Muslim clerics tried to shame her out of the Olympics by claiming that she was dishonoring herself and the kingdom by competing in front of males.
The track saw several women from different Islamic nations compete in hijabs. These were women still trying to respect their religion and the laws of their country, but at the same time represent the women of their nation by competing on the global stage.
Afghanistan’s Tahmina Kohistani may have come nowhere near qualifying for the next round in her 100 meter heat, but she hopes she achieved a much greater victory. She wants to inspire other women from her nation to compete in sports, and hopes they will come with her to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Each of these women had to deal with incredible hardships to get to these Games. Kohistani had to break through heckling mobs every morning as she tried to get to the track for her practice. Kohistani, Shahrkhani and other women, like Qatar’s Noor Al-Malki, Oman’s Shinoona Salah al-Habsi and Yemen’s Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, not only had to power through rigorous months of training, but also survive threats and hostility.
This article isn’t about congratulating the countries that brought these women. Nations like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan treat their women deplorably and force them to be subservient to men. I’m not oblivious to the fact that their allowance into these Games was a political move and an act to ensure their men would gain entrance into the Olympics. But these women are heroes for persevering through the harsh criticisms and violent threats.
They want to inspire future generations to stand up and seek the dream of competing on a global stage. If they succeed in making just a few more girls want to compete at the Olympics and maybe even one day truly being competitive, then it is a true victory. It is going to be decades before these nations truly allow women equality, but this is the first step towards the female population speaking out.
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(Image courtesy of NBC)