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Pioneers? Yes. Is it Enough? No.

by Meg Heery

August 5, 2012

Last week, the world glimpsed women from Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as they walked in the opening ceremony (several paces behind their male counterparts). Finally, every participating country allowed female athletes to represent.

Their performances have received less fanfare. Admitted through an International Olympic Committee rule that accepts certain non-qualifying athletes in order to broaden participation, these women never had a prayer on the playing field. But, as Olympic organizers and broadcasters tacitly acknowledged in press releases and smiling platitudes, the Games aren't just about winning. They're also about bringing out the best in humanity through athletics.

Was getting these women here from countries with devastating human rights policies achievement enough? Yes and no. Deploying a handful of pawns onto the Olympic stage will not pull women out from under the thumbs of oppressive laws.

As the San Jose Mercury News noted this week, female athletes in their home countries worry that a select few going public will jeopardize the safety of all.

Human rights violations will also continue to go on in countries where women are already in Olympic competition, including Iran, Bulgaria, Sudan and China.  Some women in those countries will still need permission to work and go to the hospital, and there may still be executions by stoning for being gay or for having sex outside marriage. Still, attaching human faces to these issues can begin to raise awareness and inch us closer to a world in which women are recognized as human beings.

That can happen only if these brave women stick in the collective mind beyond the opening ceremony. Above, Erin Burnett does her bit for these competitors; here's my own humble contribution to ensuring that we remember their names.


Maziah Mahusin
, 21, placed sixth in her qualifying heat of the women's 400 meters, setting a   national record with 59.28 seconds. About eight seconds too slow to put her in the semifinal, she was still a heck of a lot faster than you and me.

Saudi Arabia

A lot of things about Saudi runner Sarah Attar are not what spring to mind when you think "Saudi woman." That's because she's not. Born and raised in California (her father is Saudi, and she has dual citizenship), the 19-year-old attends Pepperdine University in Malibu. Probably the least typically Saudi thing about Attar is her official Olympic photo, especially in the context of the Saudi team photos. Amid a small sea of expressionless, mostly male faces, she's smiling. It's a wry, "I know what's really going on here" half smile. Her hair is not only uncovered but messy, like she's just returned from a workout. It's so deliciously defiant I don't care if she finishes dead last in the 800 meters preliminary next week.

Wojdan Shahrkhani,
17, made news for her battle to wear a non-regulation hijab during her judo match. It was all anyone talked about here, and here and elsewhere. What no one seemed to wonder was why she was there at all. The inexperienced judoka had never competed at all before. Looking at photos of her open, frightened face, I can't help but wonder how much of the decision to fight was hers. She lost her first bout, against Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico, in 82 seconds.


Nada Mohammed W.S. Arakji
, 17, swam her qualifying 50m freestyle heat in 30.89 seconds. Not the worst time, but nowhere near fast enough to advance to the semifinal. (On Saturday, Dutch swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo's 24.05 finish broke the Olympic record.) 

Bahya Mansour Al Hamad, 20, placed 17th in the qualifying level of the women's 10m air rifle tournament. She missed only five points in all four turns and shot 30 rounds in the inner 10-point target. Only four points and seven perfect 10s separated her from top-ranked Sylwia Bogacka of Poland. But that wasn't enough to get her into the final, alas, in this fiercely competitive event where perfection is de rigueur.

Egyptian-born Aia Mohamed, 18, lost her preliminary-round table tennis match against Canada's Mo Zhang 4-0.

Runner Noor Al-Malki, 17, fell early in her only event, the women's 100 meters, pulling a hamstring 15 meters into her qualifying heat Friday.  She made her way off the track to the cheers of 80,000 spectators; most were there to support Britain's Jessica Ennis (who did go on to win the heptathlon), but were happy enough to wave to Noor, the pioneer.

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Meg Heery, Meet Your New Olympic Heroes. On  the Issues Cafe, August 1, 2012.

Gwen Deely, Water Borne... On  the Issues Cafe,  May 24, 2012.

Alex Channon, Martial Arts: Why Sex Segregation Is Bad for Society. On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2010.


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