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.