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First female Saudi competitors triumphant, but still walking behind the men

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Jem McCarron
WVoN co-editor

The Olympic Games will herald many firsts over the next few weeks, but there is one that really could impact lives around the world.

For the first time since the games began, every participating country will have at least one female representative.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, three countries failed to send any women; Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar.

The 2012 Olympics have made special efforts to ensure that every country sent at least one female competitor and whilst none of the women sent by Saudi Arabia, Brunei or Qatar met the qualifying conditions, they were invited to attend by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as part of their Principal of Universality that allows them to wave the usual conditions to ensure equality.

This year Brunei has sent one woman in a team of three, Maziah Mahusin, who was accepted less than a month before the start of the Olympics and will be running the 400m hurdles.

Qatar has fielded three female athletes. The country made a failed bid for the 2020 Olympics but will be attempting again for 2024.

Despite leaving it right to the very last minute, the Saudi Arabians have two women on their team.

Sarat Attar will be running the 800m for the Saudis; however, she is rarely in the country, living and training instead in California.

Her colleague, 16-year-old Wodjan Shaherkani has never left Saudi Arabia, having been trained for her role in the Judo competition in private by her father.

Irrespective of this faltering start, they both made history when they stepped into the arena on Friday evening at the opening ceremony, waving triumphantly at the exuberant crowd.

Viewers could not help but notice that the women walked behind their male teammates, something sadly comfortably in line with the country’s attitude toward women, Olympians or not.

The Saudis may have allowed the women to compete, but only under strict sharia guidelines.

A recent row about Shaherkani’s head covering resulted in threats of the country pulling out altogether.  The women are to be chaperoned by a ‘guardian’.

It is hoped that the presence of these two women will improve conditions for women wanting to take part in sports in Saudi Arabia where they are currently banned from competitive sports.

Most gyms and swimming pools do not provide female-only sessions. Those that do are prohibitively expensive.

Whilst this is most definitely a landmark moment for women in the Middle East, it is not a revolution, and any change will be slow and face significant resistance.

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