Hijab controversy simmers at Olympics
LONDON (AP) - Unlike the Olympics with its gold, silver and bronze, life sometimes dishes up events in which nobody feels like a winner.
Such a moment is unfolding in the box-like judo venue a short ride from Olympic Park, where an effort to include more women in the games has slammed headlong into efforts at multiculturalism and questions of basic sporting fairness.
In the center of it all is Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, a wide-faced Saudi teenager whose desire to compete against the world's best judo fighters - without violating conservative Islamic mores - has forced organizers, the international judo federation and the Saudi Olympic Committee to huddle repeatedly in search of a solution.
What they've come up with, that Shahrkhani can compete in an as-yet-unspecified, modified version of the hijab, is unlikely to satisfy everybody.
Already, Monday night's ruling is being panned by hard-liners in the Middle East, who say they cannot see how it will be sufficiently modest, and from rights groups that say the inclusion of Shahrkhani and another female Saudi athlete, the first women ever to compete for the kingdom, amounts to window dressing, since millions of other Saudi women are effectively barred from openly playing sports, or even watching.
"I doubt it is Islamic to play judo,'' Sheikh Abul-Kheir Ahmed, a cleric who teaches law and Islamic jurisdiction at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the region's premier religious institution, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "Men will be looking at her and she will likely be wearing form-fitting attire.''
Others, including some hard-line women, were even more insistent that a compromise, any compromise, cannot be adequate.
"Any agreement (with the Olympics Committee) has come at the expense of her hijab and her commitment and faith,'' said Alaa Ahmed, a producer for Maria TV, the first pan-Arabic channel to feature only fully veiled women. "She can play for herself in a place for women only, but not on an international stage in front of men to win a medal at the expense of countering her religion. ... She should not please this world in exchange for the hereafter.''
On another plane of debate entirely are competitors who may be sympathetic to Shahrkhani's plight, but say she never should have been allowed to compete in the first place because she is not nearly at the level of the other Olympians - a blue belt in which everyone else owns a high-level black belt. One former medalist called her a novice, and another competitor warned that judo fighters are not trained to go easy.
Some have also voiced concern that the hijab - if not sufficiently form-fitting - could lead to choking, or even offer Shahrkhani a competitive advantage, though one she is presumably not skilled enough to take much advantage of.
The aim of judo is to throw opponents flat on their back or pin them to the ground for 25 seconds. Players can also win if they get their rivals to submit in a chokehold or stranglehold.
Most judo matches are dominated by aggressive attempts by players to grip their opponents' uniform - which nearly all come untucked from their belts as the match proceeds. Taller judo players - like those in Shahrkhani's heavyweight category - are more likely to try to reach behind an opponent's head to grip the uniform at the base of the neck for a dominant grip.
"If (Shahrkhani) wears a tight-fitting headscarf, that would be fine, as long as it is close to the body,'' said Eva Csernoviczki, a Hungarian judo fighter who has already taken home a bronze medal. "But if she's wearing a looser one, that should not be allowed. It is too loose and could be difficult for other judo players to grip her. ... It could also be dangerous if you grab her headscarf accidentally and try to choke or strangle her because it could get in the way.''
There is also the risk that Shahrkhani's headscarf could come off as she grapples with her opponent in her match Friday, leaving her exposed - quite literally - to hard-liners who will see her as having dishonored herself.
It's a tremendous amount for an 18-year-old and her family to take, particularly given the normal pressure Olympians feel ahead of the most important competition of their lives.
Shahrkhani's father, Ali, said his daughter is focused on the competition and training at a secluded facility in London. He would not describe the modified hijab or answer any other questions about the controversy.
"It's her first time in competition and it's the Olympic Games, so she is focused on that,'' the elder Shahrkhani said in a telephone interview.
While the controversy is unlikely to go away, at least some people are being won over by his young daughter's courage and determination.
"She is a pioneer. She is also a tough cookie,'' said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "When we look back this Olympics, we will say that moment in London was a historic step forward for Saudi women and their place in society.''
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Maria Cheng in London and Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.
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