A League of Their Own: Saudi Women's Fitness Revolution
The female fitness revolution in Saudi Arabia.
September 10, 2009Saudi men may still have the roads to themselves, but the gym is no longer a male-only preserve. From the Hejaz to the Eastern Province, women across the Kingdom are creating sports clubs and joining basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams—often to the chagrin of religious authorities. There are more than a dozen female-only basketball teams in Jeddah alone, and many clubs have quickly grown to include over 100 members.
Operating without official licenses, the exercise centers often attempt to hide swimming pools, saunas, and gyms by disguising themselves as beauty salons or “natural treatment clinics.” Other sports facilities escape state scrutiny by affiliating with women’s charities or private high schools and universities.
Proponents of this fitness revolution hope that sports will provide a healthier alternative to the shopping and other idle habits of most Saudi women. According to a WHO study, as many as 75 percent of Saudi women are either overweight or obese, and increasing numbers of Saudis suffer from diabetes or high cholesterol every year. Heart disease is now the Kingdom’s biggest killer, accounting for 30 percent of all deaths.
Despite these urgent health concerns, however, female recreational leagues have not won widespread approval from government officials. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has already closed two unlicensed clubs in Jeddah and one in Dammam, and the state still bans physical education programs for girls in public schools. Religious leaders worry aloud that building more gyms for women could “open the doors wide for spreading decadence.”
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.