When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, I never considered that women’s sports would be an issue. Even though I was aware of the debate over women competing in the Saudi 2012 Olympic team, and the fact that only two female competitors qualified, in Judo, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar in the 800 meters. I thought that women would be keenly participating in sport behind closed doors.
Expat women who live in compounds have access to gyms, tennis and exercise classes. I found a golf club outside Riyadh, at Dirab, as I love golf I immediately became a member. The DH did not dare say no, but I have to say the cost is not unreasonable compared to American or British prices.
I became aware of the potential problem when I went looking to buy a new tennis racquet. Women’s stuff is relegated to dusty corners, looks like last seasons, and nothing comes in any size or colour that you would want to buy. This was very strange, could it be that one shop? but no, all the sports shops that I have visited so far carry nothing much for women apart from the odd Burkini, ugly swimsuits and unsuitable leisure wear.
If this were the case in the UK they would go out of business, as so many British men I know prefer to exercise in the most shabby clothing imaginable: “Boil and bake” Rugby shorts, slightly tight and gray, are pulled from drawers proclaiming the former glory of the first XV, Moth-eaten cricket whites held together with old school ties, ubiquitous Dunlop Green Flash tennis shoes, ( do they still make them?) paired with gray socks and a variety of other unmentionables make their way to the sports field. I think it must be something in the DNA as I know so many Brits for whom this is true. Perhaps it is due to not wanting to seem too keen, don’t be fooled though, they always want to win.
I digress, I then discovered that there is no sport in Saudi girls schools here. Things are about to change, a week ago the Saudi Press Agency reported that private girls schools would be allowed to offer sport if girls were suitably dressed and supervised by women coaches. Nothing for the public schools though, that means the majority of Saudi girls have no access to sport. I think that this small change is indicative of something bigger that is happening. The powers that be in the Kingdom realize that lack of exercise and obesity are a literally a growing problem here. All the supermarkets carry vast amounts of soda, candy, chips and crisps. The nation is beginning to suffer the same related health problems as the USA and UK. They must be pondering how to encourage healthy lifestyles while still maintaining modesty.
There are a few private women’s gyms in Riyadh, such as Kore, and Nuyu which offer classes and training but they are few and far between. In the past it has been very difficult for women’s gyms to get licenses to operate here. After the latest announcement about private schools hopefully more facilities will open. There is no culture of exercise among women so of course demand is an issue. Although there are some exceptions; formidable arabian horsewomen, the brave women who dared to compete at the Olympics and some hidden women’s soccer teams. The Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for women has developed a fantastic sports centre for women. It includes a stadium, gym, pools and courts. It remains to be seen when women will win The Kingdom an olympic medal, potentially 2016?
Our compound has fantastic facilities for both women and men together and apart, there is a philosophy of trying to encourage everyone to be healthy. But even here it is sometimes tricky for all women. I was playing tennis with a friend early this morning and a procession of cars and vans drove by the Tennis Courts, each slowing to a crawl as they neared the courts as men gawked out of the windows. From this you can understand Saudi women’s concern about uncovering in public, if men want to stare at me playing tennis, I mean my Kate Moss years are long over, even if they only ever existed in my imagination.
This is great news. As a Canadian Somali Muslim woman I understand that modesty and exercise can sometimes conflict especially when done in public. Thank God here in Canada we have women only facilities and gyms can be rented. Better yet our Somali communities hold their own activities geared to our needs. How privileged we are here in the west. ALHAMDULILAAH (praise and thanks be to God)