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Breaking Boundaries

For the first time ever, women from every participating country are represented at the Olympics. After much hesitancy and indecision, Saudi Arabia agreed on July 12 to send two female athletes to London ? judo fighter Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and 800-meter runner Sarah Attar.

The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee entered both competitors before the July 9 deadline. Though neither of them was eligible for the London Games based on qualifying times, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited them to participate under the universality clause. It permits athletes who don?t qualify to compete to increase equality. ?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,? said the 17-year-old Attar.

Attar, who was raised in California, trained at Pepperdine. Shahrkhani, 16, prepared for the Olympics in Saudi Arabia.
The IOC and human rights groups had been pressuring Saudi Arabia for months to include female athletes on its Olympic team. The non-profit Human Rights Watch had denounced the country for violating the IOC charter on gender equality.

?It is only right that the Saudi government should play by the Olympic rules,? its director, Minky Worden, said. In late May, the IOC executive board received a request for Saudi women to participate in London. And, after a series of negotiations between the IOC and Saudi Arabia, the latter has joined the ranks of Brunei and Qatar ? two countries that are also adding female athletes to its roster. Human Rights Watch is still not satisfied.

Though Saudi Arabia may have avoided IOC sanctions, ?an 11th-hour change of course to avoid a ban does not alter the dismal and unequal conditions for women and girls in Saudi Arabia,? Worden said. While no law bars females from competing in the Olympics, many conservative traditions and principles believe women would be ?vulnerable to sin? if they participated.

And now, Saudi Prince Nawaf bin Faisal feels that these values may be threatened. International Judo President Marius Vizer announced that judo fighters would not be allowed to wear hijabs when competing.

But, Prince Nawaf said that Saudi women?s clothing must conform to Sharia law. Shahrkhani signed a deal with Saudi Olympics representatives, agreeing to only compete if able to wear ??correct and approved? clothing that ?sticks to Islamic principles.?? 

While talks to resolve the matter are underway, if a compromise is not reached by Friday, Shahrkhani will not compete in her event. But, if she withdraws from the judo tournament, Razen Baker, the Saudi National Olympic Committee representative, said that it would be a ?joint decision? between Shahrkhani and Saudi Olympics officials.
If a settlement is reached, however, Shahrkhani and Attar will join 10,498 other athletes in what is now known as the “Year of the Woman.” UPDATE: Shahrkani will be allowed to wear a hijab during competition. 

One of Qatar?s first female participants, Bahya Mansour Al Hamad, served as the country?s flag bearer. She also placed 17th in the 10-meter air-rifle competition on Saturday. Likewise, Brunei?s first female athlete, Maziah Mahusin, was also the nation?s flag bearer.
The United States Olympics team is also making history. This summer, it has more women competing than men ? 269 females to 261 males.
For more Olympic stats, click here.

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