Aisha Bint Abdullah

Aisha Bint Abdullah

Journalist

Women pull their weight in Saudi gyms

Saudi Arabia’s reformative push has been gaining both momentum and favor with international media outlets. Among them, global news agency Reuters has closely followed on Saudi leadership’s proactive developments; at the center of which is a national overhaul on matters of women empowerment and inclusion across key fields of economic growth.

Perhaps one of the largest breakthroughs for Saudi women in male-dominated fields was in sports. For a number of years, their participation in the Kingdom’s sport sector had been constrained by enduring limitations on PE education for girls at schools, and on public sports facilities for women. Now, a Reuters report has come out to document and share the experience inside the Kingdom’s ‘ladies only’ gyms, in the midst of the country’s reformative revamp.

Reuters’ report takes viewers inside Al-Qatif’s recently opened gym in the Eastern province. It shows Saudi women in full workout mode, proudly donning their Hijab, and welcoming the camera crew with an all-access pass to their daily workout routines. Defying stereotypes associated with male sports, the bulk of their and other gym members’ training routines heavily involve weightlifting, the women asserted, reflecting a change in not only societal, but also, self-perception on their physical power and appearance. The misconception that weightlifting bulked up and distorted womanly figures couldn’t be further from the truth, they added.

In fact, most of the gym’s female members are training to become certified trainers themselves, building on the momentum of Saudi women flocking to sports and gyms in recent times, and in a more flex environment for their active and athletic lifestyles.
Reuters’ report comes only a few days after the Saudi General Sport Authority decided to close down a gym in Riyadh, after its on-site promotional video went viral on social media, and its content, deemed to be violating public moral and decency norms.
 
The authority issued a statement announcing the shutdown of the gym and the suspension of its management. It stressed on that it did not tolerate any violations or transgressions that would “offend society or [decency codes], and will not hesitate to pursue anyone who proves to be carrying out such irresponsible behavior," according to the statement.

The shutdown struck the wrong chord with international media outlets. Controversial reports and headlines ensued. Reuters decided to go on the ground, visiting a slew of ladies-only gyms that had recently opened in the Kingdom, offering Saudi women an outlet and space for their athletic lifestyles. As verbalized in the Saudi General Sport Authority statement, the Kingdom’s progressive move remains governed by “Sharia controls”.

Milestone moves

The past few months saw a number of women gym openings in Jeddah, Riyadh, Jubail, Dammam and Al-Qatif, and have since attracted large volumes of memberships. In tandem, female employees are undergoing training and skill development both to manage and train others at these gyms.

The year 2017 marked a milestone development for women in Saudi sports. After an enduring halt, the Saudi Ministry of Education decided to approve PE classes in girls' schools, gradually rolling out physical education programs in compliance with Sharia law and in line with individual school resources and capabilities.

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