We have heard it over and over again, this olympics was the first olympics where every team had female athletes. This was considered a resounding success and a triumph of the spirit of the olympics, but what happens to these women once the fanfare is gone and the glitter dust settles?
Wojdan Shaherkani was one of the women put forward by Saudi Arabia in the heavy-weight judo competition. She lost her bout within two minutes. Unsurprising considering the olympics was her first official judo competition, since Saudi Arabia outlaws women participating in sports in public. Saudi Arabian television networks refused to broadcast her match and she was routinely called a “prostitute of the olympics. “
It is hard not to wonder what is the point of it all. Will the pressure that was placed on Saudi Arabia by the International Olympic Committee make life better for Wojdan Shaherkani and other women like her? Will it result in the loosening of the tight social controls that prevent women from participating in sports and athletics in Saudi Arabia? Perhaps now that her role as token sacrificial lamb has been played Wojdan Shaherkani will have to go back to her home and live as she did, while we all pat ourselves on the back for an olympics where every country had women athletes.
Perhaps this will simply serve as something that the Saudi Arabian government can point to when it faces criticism from within and without. Women were allowed to compete in the olympic games, it can’t be all that bad right? I hope with all my heart that Wojdan Shaherkani will be able to go home and live her life unmolested because of this experience. I hope that she doesn’t have to face the shouts of being a “prostitute of the olympics.” I hope that her family continues to support her and look after her. The International Olympic Committee sure as hell won’t.
It is easy to pat ourselves on the back and about these olympic games being the best ever for women. I think however it is important to think about what happens to these pioneering women, to honor their bravery and their sacrifice after the excitement fades and they have to go back to dealing with their lives. I hope that somehow Wojdan Shaherkani will go on to inspire other Saudi Arabian women to do what gives them joy, but I hope that in the future it will be on her own terms. Not as a tool of the self gratifying interests of the International Olympic Committee.
Tokenistic inclusion of women at the olympics is not the same as meaningful change for women in their home countries. While we should celebrate this achievement it is also important to remember the context in which it exists and what it means for the women who must be the trailblazers, sometimes whether they want to be or not. Let us not purely get swept up in the hysteria of the olympics but use it to think about what women participating in sports on a global stage means for the world.