CAIRO (AP) — There was no way Alaa al-Mizyen, a 22-year-old Saudi investment consultant, was missing this Olympic match. While her family slept in late Friday morning, she alone was awake and glued to the TV.
It was, after all, her first ever opportunity to cheer a Saudi woman in the world’s biggest sporting event.
The participation of Saudi judo player Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani had raised the scorn of the kingdom’s ultraconservative Islamic clerics, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges. And the match Friday was a swift defeat for Shahrkhani: The teenager was thrown by her Puerto Rican opponent in just over a minute.
But for her supporters, it was an enduring, landmark victory.
Shahrkhani was taking a stand against culture and customs that have little to do with Islam but are used to justify hardline interpretations that restrict women, al-Mizyen said.
“There is a very fine line between religion and culture and customs. People are holding so tightly to customs and traditions and using Islam to defend them,” she said, speaking by telephone from the Saudi Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah.
The judo match wasn’t shown live on Saudi state TV or many other Saudi-owned satellite channels, though it was unclear if that was because of the controversy swirling around her. Other state-owned stations in the region focused instead on other athletes or regional crises. But the match was shown on several Arab satellite sports channels.
Many in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region missed the fleeting moment altogether simply because the match coincided with the middle of traditional Friday prayers.
But her supporters watched closely.
“It is beautiful that she played and in front of people and proved her presence and stated that Saudi women are not all servants at home,” said Wajeha al-Huwaidir, a Saudi activist who launched a campaign before the 2008 Beijing Olympics to support women’s participation.
Rafid Fatani, a Saudi who pulled out all the stops to make sure he could attend Shahrkhani’s match in London, walked out of the stadium afterwards proudly waving his nation’s flag.
Some in Saudi Arabia use criticism of participation by women in society “just so they can empower their cause, and their cause is just to put women down.”
“They have been brought up to believe women are subordinates, are second class citizens and should not have the same opportunity as men,” he added.
Shahrkhani dressed in a loose, cream-colored judo suit and a tightly-fitted black cap that served in the place of a traditional hijab, or headscarf worn by conservative women to cover their hair. The modified hijab was a concession to the sport to avoid choking. In a competition where everyone else holds a high-level black belt, Shahrkhani has only attained a blue.
Shahrkhani’s detractors, though, see her participation as a deviation from Islamic mores and an attempt by the West to co-opt the Arab world’s most conservative nation, home to Islam’s holiest site.
In Saudi clerics’ eyes, the cap fell far short of the all-encompassing black robes and face veil that they insist women should wear. And there was the fact that the Saudi judoka was competing in front of men.
Saudi preacher Sittam al-Dusri told The Associated Press that Shahrkhani’s family should have protected her “as a precious gem” from the eyes of men.
“It is not important for the West that the Saudi woman participates well, but that she goes out in dress that does not conform to Islamic rules,” he said. “Wojdan is a martyr of Westernization and liberalism.”
Women in Saudi Arabia face heavy restrictions under its ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. They must have written approval of a male relative before they can travel or work and are not allowed to drive. They are often the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom’s intrusive religious police, who ensure men and women do not mix in public.
Strict gender segregation often relegates women to inferior facilities — if facilities for them exist at all.
“Today highlighted how much of a winner she is. In the face of not having any facilities, in the face of swimming upstream like a salmon she still had the ability to make it here,” said Fatani, the Saudi who attended the match.
Fatani said his three sisters and mother pay $3,000 a month to be members in one of the handful of gyms for women in Saudi Arabia. For the average Saudi girl, physical education is not part of the curriculum in public schools and private gyms are too costly.
Thousands posted comments on Twitter Friday — both for and against — about the teenager from Mecca whose first time to ever fight in public was in the London Olympics.
Some have urged her not to jeopardize her place in the afterlife for a fleeting bit of fame on earth. Others warned that she and her family could face ostracism when she goes home. Others cast doubt on whether she was really Saudi, saying her appearance looked Central Asian.
Farani said Shahrkhani has proven she can cover her hair and play at an international event.
“That is the biggest slap in the face to anyone who says that being a Muslim woman is a hindrance to being an equal part in society,” Fatani said.
In remarks carried on the Olympics website, Shahrkhani said her journey was only just beginning.
“Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also,” she said. “Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.