Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

At the same time as Islamist extremists in the African nation of Mali were stoning a couple to death for having sex (and children) outside marriage, a young Saudi Arabian woman found herself the object of a dispute over whether she could compete at the Olympic Games wearing a headscarf. The two are connected; we’ll get to that.

In the case of Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, reason prevailed -- a compromise reached Tuesday will allow her to take part in Friday’s heavyweight judo competition. A spokesman for the International Judo Federation declined to elaborate on the deal, but it appears that Shaherkani will wear a specially designed headscarf. This makes her and teammate Sarah Attar, an 800-meter runner, the first women the conservative Saudis have sent to the Olympics.

Shaherkani will undoubtedly lose her contest against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, ranked 13th in the world. Shaherkani, at 16, has only a beginner’s blue belt. But the Olympics committee and the International Judo Federation accepted her lack of experience. They invited her because they wanted to get Saudi women into competition. Besides, it’s not the only time Olympic standards have been lowered: The U.K. sent the less than stellar Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards to ski jump at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, and Jamaica famously sent a bobsled team with just a year’s training.

The judo federation, however, balked at Shaherkani’s headscarf. A blue belt was fine, it reasoned, but wearing a headscarf on the mat would be unsafe -- she might be choked. Plus, it was against “the principles and spirit of judo.” These arguments were surely undermined by the participation of women in headscarves at international judo competitions in Asia.

Barring Shaherkani would have detracted from what should count as an achievement for the 2012 Olympics: For the first time, every participating nation has allowed its women to compete, with Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia finally joining the rest of the world and ending their bans. (It’s worth noting that the Olympic Charter describes gender discrimination as incompatible with being a member of the Olympic Movement.)

Feelings about headscarves are immaterial. To many non-Muslims and secular Muslims alike, the headscarf represents a tool for the suppression of women. But to prevent women who wear them from taking part in sports events, working or going to college -- as was the case until recently in Turkey -- is simply wrong. The goal is not the symbol, the goal is to win the right for women to govern their own lives and participate fully in society. Shaherkani wanted to compete.

Saudi Arabia is a country in which women are still not allowed to drive cars and where the female participation rate in the workforce is just 17 percent. Girls are not taught sports in public schools. Women aren’t allowed to play competitive sports outside licensed clubs, and yet no licenses have been granted for women’s sports clubs. The regime set strict conditions on its female Olympic hopefuls, including a requirement to have with them the male guardians that all Saudi women are obliged to have by law.

Yes, there’s a long way to go. But every step taken to relax restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia should be welcomed and not rebuffed. Saudi women are beginning to demand more rights; the sight of their fellow citizens marching in the Olympic stadium (albeit behind the men) may inspire them. Long before the headscarf controversy, the decision to send women to compete in London was a cause celebre in Saudi Arabia’s blog-and Twitter-spheres. Most celebrated the move, but others attacked Attar and Shaherkani as prostitutes.

Such attitudes, presumably, were shared by Mali’s Islamist extremists, who last weekend took Shariah law to mean that adulterers should be stoned to death. As recently as 2007, a woman was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for adultery, and last year one was beheaded for “sorcery and witchcraft.” Although Saudi Arabia has not carried out the death sentence for adultery in many years, the country’s record on women’s rights remains among the worst in the world.

This is why Shaherkani should consider herself victorious, even if she loses her contest. For any Saudi woman to walk into the ring at the Olympics, with or without a headscarf, is to land a long-overdue blow against inequality and oppression.

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