LONDON - A teenage Saudi judo fighter is preparing for the battle of her life — and not only on the mat.
Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will take on Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica in a preliminary match early Friday that is likely to be over in record time.
The real drama will be after that, in reaction to what she'll be wearing in front of male spectators.
Shahrkhani, one of the first two women ever to compete at the games for the conservative Gulf kingdom, will fight in a modified hijab under a deal worked out between Olympic officials, the international judo federation, and Saudi authorities.
While the 18-year-old has many supporters in the region, the compromise has not been nearly enough to satisfy hard-liners who say she is dishonouring 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."
A more immediate worry for Shahrkhani comes in the form of Mojica, an 85-kilogram (187-pound) fighter who is the 24th ranked judo fighter in the world and is skilled at groundwork and aggressive grappling.
Like every other athlete in the competition, Mojica holds a black belt and has honed her skills by training with men, while Shahrkhani is a virtual novice, a blue belt who has only been at the sport for two years. After blue comes brown, and then there are ten degrees of black.
Judo is a contact sport in which the aim is to throw your opponent to the ground, pin them down or force them to submit to a chokehold or armlock. Already in this Olympic competition, a Hungarian bronze medallist has been strangled into unconsciousness and a Korean medallist from Beijing snapped a ligament and ruptured some muscles during a preliminary fight — which he won.
Some have warned that Shahrkhani is at risk of being seriously injured. In any case, her Olympic experience is likely to be over in a flash — which is when her larger struggle will begin.
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.
The match will not be aired on state-run Saudi TV stations on Friday, though a number of Gulf-based satellite channels will carry it. The timing of the fight could also conflict with traditional Friday prayers, impacting the number of men who will tune in.
But Saudi women who favour reform say they will not miss Shahkhrani's shining moment.
"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."
Associated Press reporters Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.