Saudi Arabia recently made international headlines when the kingdom announced that, for the first time, it would send two women -- 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and judo competitor Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani -- to the Olympics. The move was heralded as a sign of progress abroad, but provoked a serious backlash among the kingdom's religious conservatives. As Eman Al Nafjan writes in Foreign Policy, Sheikh Al Shathri -- a Saudi cleric -- was kind enough to suggest some alternatives to athletics for women ... such as vacuuming or household chores.
But whether Saudi Arabia's half-hearted gesture is a true opening for women or a token move to avoid an Olympics ban, many women are already competing in regional sports events across the Middle East. Some countries have stringent restrictions on women's sports -- including conservative dress codes and restricting spectators; others like Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, have attitudes toward female athletes that are very similar to those in the Western world. To dispel myths and learn what life is like as a female athlete in the Middle East, Brigitte and Marian Lacombe decided to investigate for themselves. Commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, their new book, Hey'ya ("Let's Go," in Arabic) contains interviews and photographs of 75 women from 20 Arab countries. The Lacombes found women practicing archery, athletics, basketball, cycling, discus, fencing, handball, judo, riding, sailing, shooting, swimming, Taekwondo, tennis, volleyball, and weightlifting across the Arab world.
Above, Saudi Arabian equestrian show jumper Dalma Malhas with her horse Flash Top Hat. The international buzz this spring was that Malhas would be the first female athlete to attend the games. Malhas won bronze in the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, and was seen by many as the most likely female athlete from Saudi Arabia to make it to the Olympics. But less than a day after it was reported that Malhas would be going to London, news broke that she would not be competing, as her horse had apparently been injured for weeks.