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Saudi Arabia's 1st female judo athlete loses bout

By PAUL HAVEN,

Associated Press

Updated August 3, 2012

(AP Photo/Mike Groll)

LONDON (AP) The first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympics was easily defeated Friday by a Puerto Rican opponent in a judo bout that lasted only 82 seconds.

Wearing a tight-fitting black cap after judo officials would not allow her to don a headscarf, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani lost the one-sided match to Melissa Mojica, a powerful 187-pounder (85-kilos) who is the 24th-ranked judo fighter in the world.

Despite earning only a blue belt in the Japanese martial art, Shahrkhani wore a black belt to compete. She has been training for two years, mostly with her father, who is an international judo referee.

The 18-year-old Shahrkhani was mainly on the defensive, swatting away Mojica's attempts to get a grip. Shahrkhani seemed tentative and cautious on her feet and made little attempt to throw Mojica off balance.

Mojica eventually grabbed Shahrkhani on her collar and flipped her onto her back for a match-ending throw.

Mojica said afterward that all athletes are entitled to their religious beliefs and should be given an opportunity in judo.

Like every other athlete in the competition, Mojica holds a black belt and has honed her skills by training with men, while Shahrkhani was a virtual novice, only competing in the sport for two years. After blue comes brown, and then there are 10 degrees of black.

Shahrkhani is one of two women competing at the Olympics for the first time from the conservative Gulf kingdom.

Her modified hijab was the subject of a deal worked out between Olympic officials, the international judo federation, and Saudi authorities.

While Shahrkhani has many supporters in the region, the compromise has not been nearly enough to satisfy hard-liners who say she is dishonoring herself and her family by competing in front of men - and in form fitting clothes. Several have told her not to jeopardize her place in the afterlife for a fleeting bit of fame on earth. Others have warned that she and her family could face ostracism when she goes home.

"She will definitely face difficulties (back home)," Hashem Abdo Hashem, editor-in-chief of Saudi's Arabic daily newspaper Okaz, told The Associated Press. "The society here will look at her negatively."

Saudi women face widespread restrictions in nearly all aspects of public and private life, particularly under guardianship laws that require them to have a male relative's permission before they can travel abroad, work, marry, get divorced or even be treated at some hospitals. It is also the only country in the world that forbids women - both Saudi and foreign - from driving. Some women who have challenged the driving ban have even been detained.

Recently, King Abdullah has pushed for some limited reforms in the face of opposition from the country's ultraconservative clerics. Women have been promised the ability to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015, and a new university near Jiddah allows men and women to study together in contrast to the strict general separation of the sexes across the kingdom.

The decision to allow Shahrkhani and another U.S.-based Saudi woman to compete in the games is an extension of those reforms.

"I am proud of her because she is confronting an entire system and society," said Aziza al-Yousif, a computer science lecturer at King Saud University. "She wants to play judo. Who decides who can judge her and what is in line with Islamic law or not? Let God judge her. We are humans. It's not our place to judge one another."

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Associated Press reporters Maria Cheng in London and Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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