Friday, 11 May 2018

Around the World: Saudi Arabia

Around the World is an occasional series celebrating the female bodybuilders of a particular country, and examining any issues peculiar to muscle women there.

The state-sponsored explosion of female-only gyms in Saudi Arabia last year was truly a seismic shift in a country where previously the involvement of women in any sporting activity was pretty much forbidden. So it was sad to hear that one of those gyms had had its licence suspended after a video filmed there and circulating on social media was accused of "promoting the gym disgracefully and breaching the kingdom’s code of conduct", according to the Saudi General Sports Authority's Chairman.

We are not going to tolerate this, he continued. The General Sports Authority asserts that it will put an end to such misdemeanours that are deemed offensive to society. All such irresponsible people will be under pursuit. Under Saudi law, publishing material through social media that is "inconsistent with public order or morality or religious values" is a crime that can get you five years plus a £500,000 fine.

The clip in question stars a woman identified as a "Tunisian kickboxer" who was - she's since been fired - a trainer at the Riyadh fitness centre performing a series of (impressively powerful) kickboxing moves, and also (apparently because this isn't in the part of the clip I've seen) doing some zumba. What's landed all concerned in such hot water though is not so much what she's doing but what she's wearing.

Saudi women can now lawfully obtain driving licences, attend sporting events (in three cities!), and access some state services without the permission of their male "guardian". Female students are even allowed to carry their mobile phones while on campus now, but wearing lycra and a singlet while working out in an all-female gym is, it seems, a clear and present danger to society. The General Sports Authority's swift response is to be applauded, tweeted a media adviser to the young, "reforming" King Salman. We are on the path to moderation, but without social breakdown, he added.

However, not all the female fitness news coming out of Saudi Arabia is so comically reactionary. In the west coast city of Jeddah "tucked away from prying eyes", 41-year-old trainer Halah Alhamrani's FlagBoxing gym – its motto "Fight Like A Girl" - offers the ladies classes in callisthenics, boxing, kickboxing, and even (whisper it!) Crossfit.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its low profile, Alhamrani's gym - relying on "word-of-mouth publicity" - achieves exactly what the state wanted these all-female gyms to achieve. A rich and prosperous country Saudi Arabia may be, but having effectively stopped female participation in any sporting activity for generations, the country now finds itself with a sedentary, obese, and diabetic female population. This not only costs the state in terms of healthcare, but is also such an epidemic that it even threatens the reformists' stated aim to have women making up a fifth of the workforce by 2030.

But as well as encouraging women to exercise for their physical well-being, FlagBoxing gym (and, I would imagine, others like it) are also enabling their members to "find their voice". On a daily basis, women who have never done sports walk into my class, some with their mothers, says Alhamrani. They walk out more confident, and the mothers say to me "Thank you for offering my daughter such an empowering feeling". Changing out of their abaya gowns in the locker room seems to transform them. They "can't wait to come back". They say being at the gym is "like going to a party".

And I suspect that this, for all their talk of public morals, is really what the authorities are so damn worried about - EMPOWERMENT. A female population fit and healthy for work is what they need; a confident, vocal, organised female population (who can punch the shiite out of their husbands) is quite possibly their worst nightmare.

More about these stories can be found on the Emirati news source The National, who reported on both FlagBoxing gym and the recent Riyadh gym closure. Also the story was covered on Emirates Woman, in the Saudi English language Al Araby, and in the British press via the Express and the Mail, and you can also watch Arab News' FlagBoxing gym report (starring Halah Alhamrani herself) on YouTube.

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