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London – They didn't make it to the podium, but four young athletes made huge strides for Muslim women when they took part in the London Olympics on Friday.
When Wojdan Shaherkani shuffled nervously onto the judo mat, wearing a specially devised, tight-fitting black headscarf, she was an unlikely ambassador for women's rights.
But Shaherkani, 16, was making history as Saudi Arabia's first ever female Olympian. So when her Games was ended by an ippon throw just 82 seconds later, it mattered not one bit.
“I'm proud, I'm happy and I want to continue in judo. I want to thank the fans for their support,” said Shaherkani, a judo blue-belt who fell sobbing into her father's arms after the bout.
It has been a long and difficult journey for Shaherkani, who trains at home with her father and brother and was competing on a wildcard.
Not only is women's sport often frowned upon in her conservative country, but her participation was nearly ruled out when judo's world body said she couldn't compete in a headscarf on safety grounds.
The dispute was resolved with the compromise, tight covering which Shaherkani adjusted several times during her brief appearance in the women's under-78kg first round.
“I was disturbed and afraid at the beginning, it was my first time in a big competition and there was a lot of pressure because of the hijab issue,” admitted the youngster.
“I was not comfortable because I didn't have any experience of big events. It took its toll on me.”
She was not the only teenage trail-blazer on a day of firsts for Muslim women -- coincidentally on a Friday, the religion's day of prayer, and during Ramadan, its month of fasting and devotion.
At the Olympic Stadium, a single lap of the athletics track broke new ground for Brunei, as 400m runner Maziah Mahusin became the tiny, oil-rich Southeast Asian state's first female Olympic competitor.
“I'm really proud, even though I didn't win anything, even though I didn't get into the semi-final or whatever,” beamed the 19-year-old, who trailed in last in her heat.
Noor Hussain Al-Malki, 17, exploded out of the blocks as Qatar's first female track athlete -- but pulled up a few steps later, felled cruelly bu injury just seconds into her 100m heat.
Meanwhile Afghanistan's lone female competitor, Tahmina Kohistani, urged more women to take up sport in her war-ravaged homeland after she came dead last in the 100m heats, despite clocking a personal best of 14.42sec.
“I have a big message for the women of Afghanistan. Come and join me because I'm alone and I need your support,” said the 23-year-old from Kabul.
“And we must be ready for the next Olympics. We should have more than one girl in the next Olympics.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hailed the brave performances, which made waves for women's sport, if not at the Games themselves. London is the first Olympics where all countries have women on their team.
“I think it is a great symbol, it is a great message in those countries and I think we're entirely happy about that,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams.
“Did we expect them to win gold medals? Probably not. But they are here, they are competing and I think we should be very happy.” – AFP