(LONDON) — Girls are not allowed in physical education classes in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to play in sports clubs — or even walk through the clubs’ front doors.
But none of that stopped Wojdan Shahrkhani from making history Friday morning when she became the first ever female Saudi Olympian.
Never mind that the 16-year-old looked shaky and unsure in her first judo bout, which she lost in just 82 seconds. Never mind that she left the mat without bowing, as is customary after matches, and needed to be reminded to do so.
She competed. And that means in defeat, she was victorious — both for her deeply conservative homeland and for the Olympics itself.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, 26 countries had no female participants. Only 16 years later, this is the first Olympics where every team has women — and where women will compete in all 26 sports. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the last holdouts.
“This is a major boost for gender equality,” said International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who has described Shahrkhani as a “symbol” of progress.
In her home country, Shahrkhani’s participation has been hotly debated and was not guaranteed. She and her fellow female Olympian Sarah Attar have been labeled “Olympic whores” online.
“Sports should be first and foremost for men. Women should follow,” argued Saudi Cleric Ahmad Al-Mu’abi during a recently televised debate, according to a clip posted by the pro-Israeli media monitoring firm, Memri. “It is in women’s nature to keep themselves covered up. Whoever thinks that we restrict women is wrong. The woman is a hidden gem. Anybody who has a gem tries to protect it, so that nobody sees it or covets it.”
But on Friday, even after losing quickly, she received support online.
Shaherkani is at the Games not because she met the qualifying standard for participation, but because the IOC facilitates participation by underrepresented countries. Whereas her competitors are black belts, she is a mere blue belt.
“They are champions she is fighting, and my daughter, for her it is the first competition,” her father, who is also her coach, said in the arena Friday.
Attar, the second ever female Saudi athlete, will compete in the 800m run on Aug. 8.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Billy Hallowell, Deseret News
Georgia McCafferty and Junko Ogura, CNN
Mohammed Tawfeeq, Joe Sterling and Susanna Capelouto, CNN