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Saudi judo athlete can't wear head scarf in Olympic competition

July 26, 2012 |  1:25 pm

Wodjan Shahrkhani, Saudi judo Olympian

A Saudi woman vying for Olympic glory cannot wear her head scarf during judo competitions, the International Judo Federation said Thursday, a decision bound to stir up alarm in her country.

Covering the head could be a risk to safety as judokas grapple on the mat, judo officials say. "She will fight according to the principle and spirit of judo, so without a hijab," International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer told Agence France-Presse.

Wodjan Shahrkhani is one of two women competing for Saudi Arabia in the Games, the first time the strictly religious country has ever sent female athletes. Shahrkhani and runner Sarah Attar were ushered into the Games after a lengthy back-and-forth with the International Olympic Committee and a public push from activists against Saudi women being shut out of sports.

Saudi Arabia has insisted that its female Olympians dress modesty, steer clear of mixing with men, stay with a male guardian and not contradict Islamic law.

It is unclear whether the order for Shahrkhani to leave her head uncovered will jeopardize her participation in the Games; the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee could not  immediately be reached for comment. Attar, a runner who went to college at Pepperdine University and high school near San Diego, is pictured on the Olympics website without a head scarf.  

The two women have already been subjected to slurs from Saudis who consider women in sports as a slippery slope toward immorality. One Saudi man derided the female athletes online as “Prostitutes of the Olympics,” according to blogger Amira Al Hussaini.

Despite its historic decision to send women to the Olympics, Saudi Arabia still essentially  bans women and girls from taking part in sports inside the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. Women can only attend health clubs with limited facilities and high fees. The rules are part of a dense thicket of official and informal restrictions imposed on Saudi women in daily life.

“The world should cheer Wodjan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar as they make history in London, but we must also remember millions of women and girls inside Saudi Arabia who can only watch from the sidelines,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.


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Photo:  Saudi judo athlete Wodjan Shahrkhani arrives with her father at London's Heathrow Airport on Wednesday in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games. Credit: Marwan Naamani / AFP/Getty Images