Saudi Arabia | The Long Walk

In the Kingdom, women fight for their right to stay fit

Players from the groundbreaking women’s basketball team Jeddah United practise free-throws in a Saudi Arabian gym. ALI JAREKJI/REUTERS
01 January, 2010

EVERY EVENING, AS THE HEAT of the day lifts, scores of women in black robes and headscarves converge on the wide sidewalks outside a private university in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. They are there for their daily workout: a brisk stride along the campus perimeter.

Walking is the only physical exercise females can do publicly in this strict Muslim kingdom. Government schools do not offer physical education classes to girls. There are no female sports teams at universities. Women cannot swim, dance, bike or jog in public, and there are few places to do these activities in private. Females are not even permitted to enter stadiums to support their favourite football team.

Outside their own homes, most women have no place to exercise except in all-women’s health clubs. But these clubs are scarce and too pricey for many women, and now, some officials want to shut them altogether.

All these restrictions arise from the widespread view among the country’s ultraconservative Muslim clergy that it is un-Islamic for females to participate in sports. One clerical blogger, Muhammed Al Habdan, has even argued that physical education at school might lead to “the loss of the shyness that is characteristic of Muslim girls,” and “the eventual masculinisation of women” who will lose “their innate female inclinations.”

Fouziah Alouni, a prominent women’s rights campaigner, told Reuters that “the idea of female fitness is nonexistent within our government” and that “depriving women of this is yet another way of marginalising them.”

The resulting barriers for women who want to do sports have contributed to rapidly rising levels of obesity and diabetes among Saudi females, health experts say. According to Saudi press reports, 66 percent of Saudi women are overweight or obese.

Saudi Arabia is also among the handful of countries that has never had women on its official Olympic teams. The kingdom sent five all-male squads to Beijing in 2008, although the Olympic charter states that “any form of discrimination” is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

But change is coming. Young Saudi women increasingly see the value—both aesthetic and medical—of regular exercise and sports. Female university students in Riyadh have organised informal football and basketball teams that play on private properties such as homes in the desert.

In the more liberal Red Sea port city of Jeddah, women are more overt about their sporting activities, and several basketball teams play regularly on the premises of female charity organisations or at private schools.

“Why are we the only country that is making such a big issue about women in sports?” asked Lina Al Maeena, 30, captain of Jeddah United, a flourishing female basketball team whose members include students and housewives. They play in headscarves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

Al Maeena has seen “drastic changes” in the mental health of women who participate regularly. She recalled how one girl suffering from anorexia “just blossomed” and became “one of our most amazing players.”

Other girls who were on anti-depressants no longer needed them because “their serotonin levels just went up naturally” during dribbling and shooting on the court. There’s been lively debate about the topic in the Saudi media in recent months, with prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family voicing support for greater athletic opportunities for females.

“I hope to see sports courts for girls inside girls’ schools,’’ said Prince Khaled Al Faisal, governor of the holy city of Mecca and son of the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, at a recent public gathering. His remark came in response to an Associated Press report that an 8-year-old girl asked why boys had sports at school but girls did not.

In another local paper, Princess Adelah, daughter of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, recently spoke of the need to ‘’seriously and realistically look into the issue of introducing sports in girls’ schools because of the rise in diseases linked to obesity and lack of movement.”

The recent debate was sparked by an attempt by Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs officials to close down several all-female health clubs because they were operating without licences.

Officials eventually admitted that no government department, including the one that issues licences for men’s gyms, is authorised to licence those of women. Only female clubs associated with a medical centre are granted licences.

In an effort to meet the growing demand for women’s exercise facilities, some entrepreneurs had opened establishments they described to licensing authorities as ‘beauty salons,’ or ‘natural treatment centres’ because they knew they could not get licensed as an all-female gym.

Even the Shura Council, an appointed advisory body to the king, responded by demanding that the ministry find a way to license female health clubs.

Most of Saudi Arabia’s influential religious establishment, however, remains opposed to women’s sports because they believe it will encourage female independence and because it seems to imitate foreign customs.

As Sheikh Al Habdan wrote on his website, physical education classes for girls would be the start of “a slippery slope” with Saudi Arabia “following in the footsteps of Western allowing women additional freedoms in sports. Soon the state will inaugurate colleges dedicated to female sports, then they will hold national championships. And to think that this brouhaha all began because women needed exercise and it just spiralled out of control.”

Al Habdan does not hold a government position, but his views are shared by many senior state-appointed clerics. During a television interview last year, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh said “women should be housewives; there is no need for them to engage in sports. Such practices don’t serve society.”

This clerical opposition to women doing sports does not stem from Islam. Rather, it arises out of cultural attitudes long discredited in most other societies. For example, some clerics have even suggested that exerting themselves in sports would be detrimental to women’s honour if it broke their hymen.

“Women need to have their dignity protected,” Sheikh Abdullah Al Manee, a member of the government-appointed Council of Senior Religious Scholars, told the Saudi Gazette. “Sports such as football and basketball require a lot of movement which may cause young women to lose their virginity, which can cause them numerous problems later on.”

But more moderate voices have begun to speak up. Ali Abbas Al Hakami, who also belongs to the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, told Okaz newspaper that women must exercise because “maintaining physical health is one of the necessities called for by Shari’a,” or Islamic law.

His opinion is shared by many Saudis, according to a recent poll by the Saudi Centre for Statistical Research. It reported that 89 percent of respondents thought that sports are important for women and 92 percent favoured having all-female gyms.

But opponents of women’s health clubs are not going to be silenced. Recently, a large poster appeared overnight on one of Riyadh’s downtown streets. It read ‘No to Women’s Clubs’ and ‘My Veil is My Life.’ The six-metre-long sign, which had no signature, declared the launch of a ‘national campaign for confronting deviant thought and trends towards Westernisation.’

Its owners had placed it for maximum impact: on a fence along Khurrais Road, where women take advantage of the wide sidewalks for their evening exercise.