Saudi Arabia's decision to send women to the London Olympics for the first time this year lasted right up to the wire vis a vis ongoing talks with the International Olympic Committee, finally reaching the decision to the affirmative just two weeks ago. It was only to be expected that the first sight of Saudi Arabian female Olympians, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, marching behind the nation's men during the opening ceremony of the games, would spark a rabid and polarizing Twitter war. The conservative half posted under a hashtag that would translate in English to #Olympic_Whores.
One should not hesitate to describe their participation as shameful and a great sin.
Whores of the Olympics...They want to run so that they intentionally fall down and reveal (their figures).
But supporters immediately infiltrated the hashtag to voice their pride in Shaherkani and Attar, one of whom asserted that it was a step in the right direction: "Next we'll be carrying the flag and walking side by side, equal." The movement is, in fact, part of a larger, tentative movement to give women more of a voice that has been going on under the reign of King Abdullah, known as a reformer: last year plans were launched to allow women to vote in municipal council elections and join the consultative council, and some of the clerics under Abdullah who criticized these reform plans have been fired for it.
The technical aspects and seeming minutia of the women's participation in the Games is being played by ear; while a Saudi official said that the women would be wearing hijabs or Islamic headscarves at all times, the International Judo Federation informed the press on Thursday that Shaherkani would have to fight without a head-covering to observe "the principle and spirit of judo."
But experts are downplaying the historical event; while gladly admitting it does set a precedent, Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations, says "I wouldn't call it a major breakthrough. The decision to allow women to participate was fought by religious conservatives. It will not lead to any wholesale changes anytime soon."
Adds Christoph Wilcke, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in slightly blunter terms:
It probably means very little. It is unlikely that the Saudi government or the Saudi sporting authorities of their own volition will make changes inside the country as a result of sending two women to the Olympics... "Everything in Saudi Arabia takes a long, long time. What I think this participation does is break a taboo and break a barrier, but I don't think that will lead to concrete changes led by the Saudi government.
What they do think the decision will accomplish, however, is the slow and gradual participation of more everyday Saudi Arabian women in athletics, which is good.