Equal space for women on the shooting line in Saudi Arabia
Only five years ago, there were no female archers in Saudi Arabia.
Shahrazad Lukanic was one of the first to pick up a bow. She was a master diver until 2004 when a mistake in her tank mixture caused an arterial gas embolism while submerged 40 metres under sea level. It left her quadriplegic and blind for seven months.
After several surgeries and years of therapy, Lukanic was back on her feet – and had her vision back.
But she was on the lookout for another sport. Archery piqued her interest.
There was only one club for women – founded at King Saud University in 2018 – and Shahrazad wasn’t studying.
“I was 49 and all the girls were college kids,” she says. “They said I was too old, but I asked HRH Princess Reema, who was in charge of sports, to be granted a permit.”
Lukanic says that there does remain a stigma attached to age.
“I think our country wants to keep a young image,” she explains. “My being 53 feels like a dinosaur in their eyes. But I am the only female on the field who has the strength to draw a 50-pound compound bow!”
Initially, Shahrazad and the other women started training underground, in indoor facilities, but over time, they were granted permission to practise outdoors.
“Suddenly, we became visible,” she says.
Physical education for girls was only approved by the ministry of education in July 2017, as part of the Saudi Vision 2023 plan for reform. The first Saudi sportswomen only went to the Olympics in 2012, competing in athletics and judo, but female participation in sport has more than doubled over the last half-decade.
Authorities in the traditionally male-oriented society have framed women’s sports within the country’s wider health objectives to help overcome conservative objections. Saudi Arabia’s population ranks among the most obese in the world.
The obstacles that the country’s emerging female archery community faced were not only philosophical but practical, too. Schools and clubs had male-only sports facilities. The management and coaching of athletes was geared towards men.
“It was not easy for the men to give up or share their territory,” says Shahrazad. “But once they realised that we can achieve results, we were given space.”
Shahrazad was quickly attracted to coaching, experiencing a lack of local expertise.
She passed the first two levels of certification provided by World Archery, then took judging courses, as well as attended training on sports psychology and clean sport.
For the past few years, she’s made it her personal mission to spread archery across the country.
“I’m glad to be part of this beautiful story which is still ongoing. Being 53, having still the chance to play, compete and teach others, it’s priceless,” she says. “Some of my friends take medication, my choice is archery.”
There has since been a concerted effort to improve the gender equity ratio among athletes, coaches and judges.
The change is real. As of this year, men and women no longer compete separately on the field of play and there are no longer male-only competitions. Since the Hyundai World Archery Championships in 2021, female archers now represent the country at international events.
Female participation has resulted in increased opportunities across the board.
“Women make up 50% of our society, and I’ve always hoped to have a women’s team because that increases our chances of winning medals,” says Saudi international Mansour Alwi. “And with the Olympic qualification rules having quotas for the mixed team, it more than doubles our chances to qualify for the Games.”
“To have been the first female in my country’s mixed team is a huge honour,” says Dalal. “I’m so proud of my team and myself for what we’ve achieved so far.”
There are currently 170 male archers and 90 female archers in Saudi Arabia. There are also 10 female coaches and five female judges.
The Saudi Arabian archery federation is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding in 2023. It’s a significant historical milestone for the organisation – but not as significant as ensuring the recent progress in making the sport available to everyone continues.
Photos courtesy Shahrazad Lukanic and Saudi Arabian archery federation.