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Who is Halet Çambel, the Female Muslim Fencer Honoured by Google Doodle?

Earlier this month, everyone’s favourite internet sketchpad, Google Doodle, honoured the late humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi, who founded the world’s largest volunteer ambulance network.

The Doodle changes on a daily basis, meaning it reacts to breaking news, birthdays (as was the case with Edhi’s appearance), and important dates in the global calendar. For International Women’s Day last week, the Doodle displayed a slideshow of incredible women from the worlds of art, science, sport, politics and culture.

One of these women was Halet Çambel. You may not recognise the name, but her story holds a crucial place in history. Çambel was a fencer who competed for Turkey as a 20-year-old at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Not only was she the first Muslim woman to ever take part in an Olympics, she did so at one of the most controversial games in the history of the event.

In 1936 Germany was under Nazi rule, and Adolf Hitler hoped the Berlin games would confirm the superiority of the Aryan ‘master race’. However the success of minority athletes – most famously black American Jesse Owens, who won four golds – rubbished Hitler’s despicable myth of racial supremacy.

While Çambel didn’t medal, her own act of defiance came with her refusal to meet Hitler: ‘Our assigned German official asked us to meet Hitler. We actually would not have come to Germany at all if it were down to us, as we did not approve of Hitler’s regime,’ she explained later in life. ‘We firmly rejected her offer.’

Çambel was born in Berlin in 1916 but moved to Istanbul with her family in the mid-1920s. Turkey was a newly founded Republic at this point and keen to promote itself on the world stage. The 1936 Olympics would be an effective way to do this, so both men and women were encouraged to get involved with sport. Çambel took up fencing, and her efforts in the Olympics personified her new nation’s progressive ideals.

After the Olympics, Çambel went on to study archaeology at university in Paris. It’s safe to say fencing took a backseat to her studies: following World War II, she spent the next five decades(!) excavating the eighth-century fortress city of Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey. Her tireless graft led to the discovery of the Hittite hieroglyphics, an ancient script native to central Anatolia.

While Çambel’s archaeological work developed a greater understanding of the area’s rich history, it’s her appearance in the 1936 games that may leave a stronger legacy. She inspired generations of female athletes to compete at the highest level – and she’ll no doubt continue to do so.

To think we learned all this because of a Doodle…

Halet Çambel died in 2014, at the age of 97.

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