London Olympics breaks new ground for women
July 25th, 2012
12:27 PM ET

London Olympics breaks new ground for women

By Isobel Coleman, CFR

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Democracy in Development originally appeared here.

This is the summer of the female Olympian. For the first time, every nation competing will have a woman on its team. In an important milestone, the United States is sending more women than men to compete in London. Even the conservative Islamic state of Saudi Arabia is allowing women to participate.

Let’s appreciate that it’s taken women more than a century of struggle to reach this point.

During the first modern Olympics in 1896, women were completely barred from competition. Still, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi decided to unofficially run the marathon anyway, finishing in five and a half hours. (Revithi was truly at the vanguard of women’s running – women didn’t compete in Olympic marathons until 1984).

In 1900, Charlotte Cooper of Britain, a tennis player, became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Still, for years, women’s participation in the Olympic Games was hotly debated. In 1912, Pierre Coubertin, a founding father of the Olympics, opposed plans to expand women’s participation to greater numbers of sports, decrying their involvement as “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” Luckily he was overruled; around the world, celebrated female Olympic athletes have upended conventional wisdom about women’s abilities and inspired millions.

Before this year, however, full female participation in the Olympics remained an aspiration. As of 1996, 26 countries’ teams didn’t include women. By the 2008 Games, only three countries – Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – didn’t field female Olympians. Brunei’s small size partly accounted for its lack of women, although this year, Maziah Mahusin, a hurdler (and one of only three athletes competing from Brunei), will carry her nation’s flag in the opening ceremonies.

Qatar is sending three female athletes: Bahiya al-Hamad, an air rifle shooter and the country’s flag bearer; Noor al-Malki, a sprinter; and Nada Arkaji, a swimmer. As al-Hamad remarked to CNN about her participation, “It’s an accomplishment for every Qatari woman. I hope I can live up to their expectation[s].” Until very recently, it seemed that Saudi Arabia would remain the holdout on female Olympians, but Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a judo athlete, and Sarah Attar, a runner, will compete. (For more on the internal dynamics of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic bid, you can read my previous post on the subject).

Women’s increased participation in the Games is in large part a result of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) proactive efforts to include women from every country. Though the athletes from Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia didn’t technically qualify for the Games, the IOC invited them. The IOC also spent months negotiating with Saudi Arabia to send women to the Olympics. Additional international pressure, especially from Human Rights Watch, also helped.

The women who will compete in the Olympics are an impressive group, but many of the women who almost, but didn’t, make it to the Games have also been trailblazers. In March, I wrote about the Catch-22 that the Iranian women’s soccer team confronted in their Olympic bid. Last year, the team missed their chance to qualify for the Olympics because FIFA, soccer’s governing body, didn’t allow women to wear headscarves – and the Iranian government wouldn’t allow them to compete without them. Since then, partly thanks to the efforts of Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, a member of FIFA’s executive committee, official rules now permit women to play while wearing headscarves. A new Dutch-designed headscarf fastened with Velcro also assuaged fears that the headscarves would pose safety risks to female competitors. Regardless, dedicated Iranian female soccer players will not have the chance to compete this year.

Across the border from Iran, Afghanistan’s Sadaf Rahimi hoped to represent her country as its first Olympic female boxer. While her boxing ability doesn’t meet Olympic standards (she received a special IOC invitation, as did the Saudi women competing), the symbolic value of an Afghan woman overcoming the cultural and religious barriers to competing in such an event was enormous. However, the International Boxing Association recently decided that she couldn’t compete in the Olympics, fearing for her safety in competition with much more skilled opponents. Her story still inspires.

In the coming weeks, regardless of their religion, nationality, or attire, women will perform physical feats possible for only the top echelon of athletes. Yet in too many countries, women’s athletic participation remains deeply stigmatized and highly contested. But female Olympians will help dismantle that reality piece by piece. For the women who have fought for years just to compete in the Olympics – all the way back to Stamata Revithi in 1896 – their moment is finally here.

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Topics: Saudi Arabia • Sports

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. kolembo

    That's really incredible for's taken so long – I took it for granted that unless a country was boycotting, it was attending with both male and female atheletes. Not until these games? Wow.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  2. Jamon

    Tabari IX:113 "Allah permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain, they have the right to food and clothing. Treat women well for they are like domestic animals and they possess nothing themselves. Allah has made the enjoyment of their bodies lawful in his Qur'an."

    July 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • Ferhat Balkan

      I actually looked this up. That is a wrong interpretation of the Quran. No where in Quran does it say "permits you to shut them (wives) in separate rooms and to beat them" but it says "Allah permits you to refuse to share their beds". Here's some further excerpts:
      "Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have rights over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can chastise them but not severely(another hadeeth says but without causing injury or leaving a mark). Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a fitting manner".

      July 25, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
      • Nina

        We shared your version with an Arabic speaker who laughed at your version.
        Jamon's version is correct.

        July 26, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • salman

      well.....this isn't from Qur'an you are quoting,.The Qur'an says on this topic in al-Nisa’ 4:34
      YUSUFALI: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).

      and this beating is dscribed as : If a woman rebels against her husband and disobeys his commands, then he should follow this method of admonishing her, forsaking her in bed and hitting her. Hitting is subject to the condition that it should not be harsh or cause injury. Al-Hasan al-Basri said: this means that it should not cause pain.
      ‘Ata’ said: I said to Ibn ‘Abbaas, what is the kind of hitting that is not harsh? He said, Hitting with a siwaak and the like. [A siwaak is a small stick or twig used for cleaning the teeth – Translator]
      The purpose behind this is not to hurt or humiliate the woman, rather it is intended to make her realize that she has transgressed against her husband’s rights, and that her husband has the right to set her straight and discipline her.

      July 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
      • nina

        Gee whiz, I can see that this is so very much better.

        July 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
      • joseph

        How do you beat somebody without causing pain and humiliation

        July 28, 2012 at 1:08 am |
      • Andy

        I suggest you rip that part out of the Qur'an as offensive to women.

        July 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • lolatliars

      Lol Jamon actually lied..

      July 26, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
    • lolJamon

      Jamon...if that is a religion every girl in that religion it is sad...Very sad...It is more sad that people still believe.. If you don't respect the mother who gave you birth and the lady who is the mother of your child, the sibling who is born with you...if you treat a woman like someone you play with or have fun shame on are not worth living in this world...

      July 30, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
  3. JAL

    Everyone should tune in and enjoy rooting for their favorites.

    July 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  4. Madan Shastri

    The list in the London Olympics web site has six men from Barbados and no women. I hope I am wrong, but it looks like we have to wait another four years for this to be true!

    July 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  5. Botha

    However, Barbados likely does not have women on its team due to its small population – and not outright trying to prohibit its women from competing unlike some of these backwards and medieval islamic countries.

    July 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  6. Charlie

    I'm a Muslim guy!
    And frankly, the stuff Jamon was saying is anything but CRAP!
    We (as males in this religion) are supposed to protect our women! Aren't bullies hitting them every now and then!
    I mean, let's face it, Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country that has not allowed many of Western-styled shifts. To maintain our traditions and culture values and "protact" them from these changes which are religiously considered unacceptable, we protect our women! In other words, once a women is westernised in mind and her lifestyle, things are worse off (In our religious prospectives)

    By the way, almost ALL Saudi women didn't ask for help from others – people are rather mindless if they think a women or two, protesting against the gov by driving is the opinion of all Saudi women and hey, Saudi men are romantic, they are not psycho hitting or underappreciating their mums, sisters, daughters or wives, and most of all, it's just too challenging for outsiders to understand the values Saudi Arabia is trying to hold onto!

    Got aweful lot to learn people 🙂

    August 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply

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