Debate on headscarf ban for Saudi judoka ongoing

Debate on headscarf ban for Saudi judoka ongoing

LONDON - The Associated Press
Debate on headscarf ban for Saudi judoka ongoing

Saudi judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani (L) arrives at the Heathrow Airport with her father before the 2012 London Olympic Games. AFP photo

Talks were under way on July 27 to allow a woman judo fighter to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympics after the sport’s governing federation said she would not be allowed to wear a headscarf.

Saudi Arabia, which sent its first two female Olympians to the London Games, had only agreed to let women participate if they adhered to the kingdom’s conservative Islamic traditions, including wearing a headscarf.

But on July 26, the International Judo Federation said the Saudi fighter, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, would not be allowed to wear a headscarf because it was against principles of judo and raised safety concerns. She may also be the first judoka to fight at the Olympics who does not hold a black belt in judo, a Japanese martial art.

Nicolas Messner, a spokesman for the International Judo Federation, said on July 27 that there was “good collaboration” among judo officials, the International Olympic Committee and Saudi Arabia to find a solution to the headscarf issue.

Messner said that wearing a headscarf could be dangerous because the sport includes chokeholds and strangleholds.

Asian judo federations have previously allowed Muslim women to wear the headscarf, known as a hijab, during major competitions. Headscarves are allowed in taekwondo, but taekwondo fighters also wear a headguard, which covers the headscarf.

Shahrkhani’s lack of experience was also worrying some. She has been training only two years, holds a blue belt and has not fought in an international competition.

Several top judo players warned that the lack of expertise could put her in danger, but officials seemed unconcerned.

“We know her and we know her level of judo,” Messner said. “She didn’t start training last week.”
Messner was not sure whether other judoka had competed at the Olympics without a black belt but said it was possible Shahrkhani was the only one. He said she should not wear a black belt competing because she has not earned it.

The federation usually requires athletes competing at the Olympics to hold a black belt, but an exception was made for Shahrkhani.

She did not qualify for her spot like the majority of other judoka. The International Olympic Committee extended a special invitation after talks among Saudi Arabia, the IOC and judo officials.

Others said Shahrkhani’s inclusion in the Olympic Games could put her in danger in the combat sport.
“You need a very high level of judo to be able to compete at the Olympic Games,” said Neil Adams, a double Olympic silver medalist for Britain. “I wish her all the best, but she’s a novice.”

Adams also said Shahrkhani’s participation at the Olympics seems unfair.

“There are three world champions who will be sitting at home because they didn’t qualify for London,” he said. “So why should someone who doesn’t have that level be allowed to compete?”

Szandra Szogedi, a Hungarian judoka who narrowly missed the Olympics, agreed.

“The Olympics is meant to be about athletes who are 100 percent committed to their sport and have given up everything for years to do it,” said the 12-time national Hungarian champion. “Judo is not about charity and giving a spot to someone because you feel sorry for them.”

At last year’s world championships, Szogedi was approached for judo tips by two Ethiopian competitors. Neither had studied judo seriously, and they said their country had sent them because they wanted to be represented at the championship.

“One of them got smashed in seconds, and the other got disqualified because she didn’t understand the rules,” Szogedi said.

She said Shahrkhani’s competitors were unlikely to show her mercy.

“If you’re competing for an Olympic medal, they will be as brutal as possible, no matter who you are,” Szogedi said.

Shahrkhani is slated to fight Melissa Mojica, a Puerto Rican fighter who has won numerous medals at the Pan-American judo championships, in the first round next Friday.

Messner said judo officials were proud the Japanese martial art had been chosen as one of the first two Saudi Arabian women to make their Olympic debut. The other is a runner who will compete in the 800 meters.

“We decided she would be able to compete at this level because she knows judo and she has been training for it,” Messner said. “We know this will be her first international competition, but we all have to start somewhere.”

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