London Olympics: Women from three Muslim countries are pioneers

The smallish young woman in the black headscarf spoke just above a whisper. Tears welled in her dark eyes as she talked about competing in the 2012 London Olympics.

“Yes,” she said, “this is my dream come true.”

It wasn’t anything as trivial as victory or defeat that made Bahya Mansour Al Hamad turn emotional.

The 20-year-old had just finished the 10-meter air rifle, an event not many people care or even know about. Her 17th-place finish left her well out of the medals.


But three letters on her athlete’s bib said it all. “QAT” stands for Qatar, a country that had never before allowed women on its Olympic team.

Simply by her presence in London, Al Hamad is a pioneer. Asked whether she ever expected to take part in the Games, she could only shake her head.

As recently as 15 years ago, dozens of countries sent only men to the Olympics. This summer marks the first time every team has at least one woman on the roster.

The last three holdouts — the Qataris and two other Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia and Brunei — agreed to change their policies after considerable pressure from the International Olympic Committee.


“This is a major boost for gender equality,” IOC President Jacques Rogge told the crowd at last week’s opening ceremony.

Qatar, which has been eager to host an Olympics, brought Al Hamad, swimmer Nada Mohammed WS Arakji, sprinter Noor Hussain Al-Malki and table tennis player Aia Mohamed. They chose Al Hamad to carry their flag in the opening ceremony.

Brunei similarly named its lone woman, runner Maziah Mahusin, as flag bearer. Saudi Arabia, which had its women marching noticeably at the rear of the delegation, did not seem as eager to make a shift.

Through much of the spring, Saudi officials flip-flopped on the issue. They added equestrian rider Dalma Rushdi Malhas to the team, then announced she had withdrawn because her horse was injured.

Under continued IOC insistence, they agreed to bring judoka Wojdan Shaherkani and runner Sarah Attar, a dual citizen who grew up in Southern California and runs for Pepperdine.

“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” Attar said in an IOC news release. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.”

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for an interview with Attar in London. The Qataris have promised to make their female athletes available this week.

People have been more talkative back at Pepperdine, where Attar is a well-liked junior on the cross-country and track teams.


Coach Robert Radnoti said she came to him in May with news the Saudis might invite her to London. They talked about which event she should enter.

Though not the most talented runner on the Pepperdine team, Attar “shows up for practice every day and does everything we ask of her,” her coach said.

It did not seem to bother her when Saudi officials vacillated on whether to include women.

“Sarah is an art major and the art major people are different,” Radnoti said. “Very mellow, smiling at the world, whatever happened she would be fine with it.”

Ultimately, the Saudis asked her to run the 800 meters. According to Radnoti, they also requested she wear a more modest suit on the track.

Published photos show her running in long sleeves and pants, a scarf wrapped around her head.

“She was perfectly fine with it,” Radnoti said. “Because of her personality, it just wasn’t an issue.”

But some critics fear strict Muslim doctrine in numerous countries will continue to keep women from participating freely. They wonder whether the seven pioneers in London will lead to more female athletes in future Games.


“The whole thing could be stopped cold,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medalist in swimming and Florida law professor who advocates gender equity. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

At the University of Minnesota, sports sociologist Mary Jo Kane hopes that — at the very least — London represents a first step. She recalls the discrimination American women faced in sports before Title IX.

“Look at where we are now,” the professor said. “It is a very slow process, but one of the things sport teaches us as human beings is perseverance.”

Given their high profile, the Olympics can be especially useful in changing perceptions. The female athletes from Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia will be performing before a global audience.

“Where sport has its biggest impact is on the masses,” Hogshead-Makar said. “It’s huge to give girls all over the world role models.”

Al Hamad had the first chance, arriving at the Royal Artillery Barracks on the first full day of competition.

Taking her place near the end of the hall — a narrow and brightly lighted space that echoed with the plinking of air-powered rifles — she pulled a visor snugly over her headscarf to cut the glare, then proceeded to shoot in methodical fashion, taking time between attempts, sometimes rubbing her eyes.

Afterward, her competitors seemed to understand the significance of the day.

“Maybe [sports officials] can open their minds and start to believe,” said Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi of Malaysia, who came to London despite being eight months’ pregnant. “Men have strength, but women have the endurance.”

Another Qatari competed Saturday, Mohamed losing to Mo Zhang of Canada in the preliminary round of the table tennis competition. Much like Al Hamad, she seemed happy just to have reached London.

The others will have their turns later in the week. And Al Hamad gets a second chance in the 50-meter air rifle.

By then, her circumstances might seem less overwhelming. By then, she might have grown a little more comfortable with her role as an Olympic pioneer.

Clearly, the situation was emotional Saturday. The most she could say, before hurrying off, was: “I’m so proud of this.”

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