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Heroines in hijabs: Lauded in London, condemned at home

Heroines in hijabs: Lauded in London, condemned at home

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar running the women's 800m heat at the London Olympics.

They finished last and by a considerable margin, but Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkhani got a standing ovation for being in London at all.

Sarah, 19, and Wojdan, 16, are the first women to compete for Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games.

While their sporting achievements didn’t win them any medals — Sarah came last in her 800m heat and Wojdan was defeated in her first judo match in a record 82 seconds — they were instant crowd favourites, receiving some of the biggest cheers of the Games.

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But while they were praised in London, the girls have faced hatred and criticism at home.

Women and girls are banned from playing sport in Saudi Arabia. Even going for a jog down their street could get Sarah and Wojdan arrested.

Weeks before the London Games began, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) succeeded in pressuring Saudi Arabia to lift the ban on female athletes.

The IOC’s announcement that Sarah and Wojdan would be competing was met with outrage from many conservative commentators.

One dubbed Sarah and Wojdan the “Prostitutes of the Olympics”, a moniker which quickly became a widely-used Twitter hashtag.

The extreme criticism was opposed by many other users of social network but despite this, most Saudi Arabian media outlets refused to report Sarah and Wojdan’s performances.

For their part, Sarah and Wojdan are trying to ignore the negative comments. They hope that they are the start of a female sporting revolution in the Middle East.

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“This is such a huge honour and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women,” Sarah said after her race.

“I know that this can make a huge difference. To make that first step for women is just the most amazing feeling ever.”

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