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The New Arab

Saudi women can finally hit the gym

Kariman Abuljadayel competes in the Women's 100m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 February, 2017

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The Saudi government is expected to issue special licences to women-only gyms this month, in an effort to fight growing health concerns.
Women in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to attend the gym for the first time, when the government distributes special licenses to sports centres this month.

The intention is to open a women’s gym in every area, as part of a national health drive.

But the sports on offer will be restricted to individual activities like running and swimming, rather than team sports like football and basketball – presumably to avoid any overly zealous manifestations of esprit de corps.

The drive is being spearheaded by prominent women’s advocate Princess Reema bint Bandar al Saud, vice president for women’s affairs at the General Authority of Sports.

Critics of Princess Reema suggest that her efforts towards women’s liberation are little more than a flimsy dressing on a gaping wound.

Women in Saudi are not permitted to marry, travel, or open a bank account without the express permission of a male guardian, and they are often unable to access healthcare without male consent.

But from more conservative perspectives in Saudi, Reema is seen as a genuine radical. Among other attention grabbing achievements, she has led a team of Saudi women to the base camp at Everest, and is a vocal proponent of women’s rights – albeit adopting a softly softly approach to reform.

The women’s gym initiative is one such example of gradual change, and behind it lies a genuine health concern.

Read also: It's time to talk breast cancer in Saudi Arabia

Partly as a consequence of the conservative society preventing access to sports and exercise, a disproportionally high number of women in Saudi suffer from obesity and diabetes.

“It is not my role to convince society,” said Reema. “But my role is to open doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle and fight diseases that result from obesity and lack of movement.”

These gyms offer very small signs of encouragement for Saudi women, building on recent glacial change, especially in sports. Last year four Saudi women competed at the Olympic Games in Rio – an improvement on two female competitors in London 2012.

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