Saudis support Judo athlete in hijab row

Wodjan Shaherkani, one of the first two female athletes sent to the Olympics by Saudi Arabia, is due to compete in the women’s heavyweight tournament next Friday. (Reuters)

A Saudi Arabian Judo competitor, who may withdraw from the London Olympics if she is not allowed to wear her hijab during bouts, received support from fellow Saudis on Sunday.

Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani is due to compete in the +78 kg Judo category on Friday.

Sunday’s edition of Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan newspaper quoted the father, Ali Shaherkani, saying his daughter “will not compete in the Judo Games on Aug. 3 if the committee insists that she removes her hijab.”

A Saudi official said earlier this month its female athletes would have to obey Islamic dress codes.

But last week, International Judo Federation (IJF) president Marius Vizer said Shaherkani would have to fight without a headscarf to comply with “the principle and spirit of Judo.”

Speaking in Jeddah, Saudi journalist Rozana al Yami said the federation should try to find common ground with the athlete.

“There are many kinds of headscarves for different sports, and of course there must be one for the sport of Judo. In my opinion, they will find another solution for her instead of preventing her from taking part in the Olympics,” Yami said.

“It would be sad if the first two Saudi women to represent the kingdom are prevented from taking part in the Olympics. We are already deprived by not being allowed to attend public sports events, such as in a sports stadium,” Yami said.

Until this year, Saudi Arabia was one of three countries, alongside Brunei and Qatar, never to have sent female athletes to the Olympics. Human rights groups urged the IOC to ban the countries from the Games unless they agreed to send women.

A leading Saudi football player on Sunday added his voice of support for a solution to the hijab issue, to allow Shaherkani to compete.

Salman al Hareri, who plays with al-Ittihad, based in Jeddah, said a way should be found around the technical problems of competing in a head covering.

“I believe that woman can represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, such as the London Olympics and they can represent the kingdom well. Yes of course, there are problems with the headscarf (in sport) but we have to find a solution that is acceptable for both parties,” Hareri said.

Constructive talks had taken place between the federation and the athlete, as well as the IOC and other organizers to see if a solution could be found, a spokesman for the IOC told reporters on Sunday.

The spokesman said the threat to withdraw was not true, as far as he knew, and he was confident of a positive outcome.

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