A new era? Saudi woman makes Olympic history

Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era, said Wojdan Shahrkhani. She became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympic Games. This is probably not the new era, but it is significant. The short interview on Saudi women participation at the London Olympics with Raghida Dergham follows. She is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat. Arabian Business ranked her as number 42 on the list of 100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2011.

1. The female athletes from Saudi Arabia will compete at the London Olympics. How important is it from your point of view? On the West we tend to perceive this as a significant step forward, do Saudi women perceive this in a similar fashion?

Any step forward for women in the Arab region, small or big, is a much needed and an important step in the long road ahead towards granting equal rights for women. These are societies of slow change, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where religion is waved as an explain and even at times as a pretext for withholding reform- when it comes to women. So yes, Saudi women competing at the Olympics is indeed significant.

2. Why do you think Saudi regime agreed on participating of women at London Olympics?

King Abdallah has in fact been taking several significant and steady steps towards improving women status in Saudi Arabia. He for example has built a university for women. This is very important given that many in the Islamic world are trying to deny women their basic human right to education. Steps taken in Saudi Arabia so far are not sufficient by any means. But it is good to see consistency insteps forward, rather than backward, as is the case in many Arab countries post what was called the “Arab spring.”

3. It is for the first time in Olympic history when basically every competing nation is sending women as well as men? Do you find it somehow symbolic or not, and why?

It has been long due! They used to say the genie is out of the bottle. Well, Maybe we should say now that women will not be squeezed back through that bottle neck again.

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