One of the quietly powerful stories to come out of this year's Olympics - at least if you have a personal interest in the middle east, like I do - is the increased participation we've seen from women representing Arab states.
In particular, articles I've read lately have featured a few different athletes: from Saudi Arabi, Sarah Attar will compete in the 800m; also from Saudi, Wojdan Shaherkani competed in judo; from Afghanistan, Tahmina Kohistani in the 100m, and Woroud Sawalha will compete for Palestine in the 800m.
Now, sure, the women I just named are all competing without having technically met the qualifying standards (they're participating under a clause that allows for under-represented countries to be included). In other words, we know they'll lose before they even toe the line because they don't perform at the level of international elites. But even their inclusion in these contests is a sign of progress for the middle east, where women's participation in sports isn't always encouraged.
Well... not so fast.
From what I've read of Shaherkani's story, that holds true.
From what I've read of Sarah Attar's story, I'm not so sure. I don't want to downplay her Saudi heritage or the impact that her participation might have as an inspiration to future generations of Saudi women, but she's a college student at Pepperdine who was born and raised in the US. She competes for their track team (wearing shorts and singlets) - although you won't readily find images of that, as they were all scrubbed from Pepperdine's website/her facebook page prior to her inclusion on the Olympic team. Instead of the California clothing she's no doubt used to, she'll be competing in a hijab and conservative dress as befits a Saudi athlete. This seems disingenuous to me, almost as though she's wearing an Olympic costume (rather than a uniform).
These women are all extraordinary exceptions. Saudi culture in particular but middle eastern culture in general poses a lot of barriers to women participating openly and equally in sports, from societal norms to issues of dress or decorum. So I applaud them for being role models for women and girls throughout the middle east.
But secretly the western feminist in me would rather see them actually compete to win, as in: a competitive program that trains women athletes to the best of their abilities on an international level. Even if it means competing without the conservative dress. I mean, if the imams can issue a fatwa postponing the Ramadan fast, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, exactly how bad would it be for a female athlete to show a little leg during competition?