A group of women made history last week as the first female athletes ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Special Olympics World Games.
The 14 women are competing in sports such as bocce, basketball, and track and field. The athletes have already won multiple games since the competition began on March 14, but Haneen Alhuaiti, captain of the Saudi women’s basketball team, says winning isn’t what matters most to her.
“We are the first female athletes from Saudi Arabia. It makes us feel wow. It’s one of the nicest moments in our life,” Alhuaiti told Humans of New York.
“Whenever we make a shot, I clap. I also clap if we miss it. And I clap if the other team makes it … But it doesn’t matter if we lose because at the end we always dance,” she added.
This year’s Special Olympics also boasts a record number of female competitors, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia reports. More than 2,800 female athletes from around the world are participating in the games currently underway in Abu Dhabi.
This is also the first time the event, open to young people and adults living with intellectual disabilities, is being hosted in the Middle East.
Until last year, women in Saudi Arabia weren’t even allowed to attend sporting events.
The country sent its first female athletes — just two — to the London Olympics in 2012, but within the Middle Eastern kingdom, women still had limited opportunities to participate in sports.
Saudi Arabia has taken small steps forward since then, allowing girls to play sports in public schools in 2017. The government has been slowly expanding women’s rights in the country in small increments, allowing women to drive and make decisions about their own maternal health care, for example.
However, its restrictive male guardianship system remains in place, requiring women to obtain the permission of a male relative — usually a father, husband, brother, or even son — to do such things as apply for a passport, leave the country, or leave a prison.
While Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before it can claim to have gender equality, the presence of its first female athletes at the Special Olympics sends a powerful message of empowerment to both women and people living with disabilities.
“When I was told I would represent Saudi Arabia in the Games, I felt real happiness,” track and field athlete Juri Alquthmisaid told Arab News. “I want to go and participate so I can make my mom proud. My mom will cheer for me. This makes me happy.”