By Belinda Goldsmith
POUNDING on a cross-trainer in a Riyadh gym, Heelah Abdulaziz is one of many Saudi women hoping the licensing of female-only gyms from next month is another step toward improving the lives of women in the Kingdom.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot exercise with men and there are no public sports facilities for them. But gyms for women are being encouraged for the first time due to Princess Reema Bint Bandar, who became head of a new women’s unit at the General Authority of Sports last year.
Unveiling the licensing last month, Princess Reema said this was about “opening the doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle”.
A spokeswoman from the Sports Authority told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that licenses would be granted from April to boost the sports economy, which does not just impact physical activity but also employment and business opportunities.
For Abdulaziz, 39, allowing gyms for women — although they are still banned from competitive sports — made sense with around 44 percent of women classified as obese in Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.
“We’ll get a lot more gyms, they’ll compete and get cheaper so more women can come,” she said at a NuYu fitness center dressed in colorful workout gear rather than the head-to-toe black garment women must wear in public.
“I didn’t have sport at school but I got interested after having children and wanting to lose weight. I tried to exercise at home,” said Abdulaziz, who lost 15 kilos (33 pounds) in a year due to exercising.
Until now the only gyms accessible to women were found in women’s centers that would only get licenses if their main purpose was not exercise but as a spa or a retail operation. Any centers found breaching that rule were closed down.
This left commercially run gyms catering to privately run women’s sports teams or middle class women able to pay $200 monthly membership operating in a legal limbo for years.
Susan Turner, chief executive of the NuYu chain set up by Princess Sara Mohammad Al-Saud in 2012 as the Kingdom’s first chain of female fitness centers, said the licensing will lower costs, fuel expansion and improve standards. NuYu now has 5 centers and is set to expand to 8 this year.
But Turner said a major drawback was the ability to get staff locally as sport is not mandatory in girls’ schools and physical education is not a career choice for Saudi women.
“At the moment we have to bring Western trainers to Saudi Arabia but if we can train local women this will bring costs down and help staff more gyms,” Turner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding NuYu planned to set up an academy for this.
“It is amazing that we get women coming in here in their 30s who have never moved their bodies on purpose … and this is a culture that is very fast food driven.”
The licensing for women’s gyms comes as changes are slowly emerging for women in Saudi Arabia live under supervision of a male guardian and where gender segregation of non-relatives is enforced.
But changes — from greater female participation in the workforce to allowing women to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012 — are trickling in. This is in line with the government’s Vision 2030 released last year that argues the need for a healthier society and economy more inclusive of women to reduce its reliance on oil.
In a break from lifting weights, Rahaf Naasani, 27, said women needed gyms in Saudi Arabia to be healthy and fit.
“There’s nowhere to work out outside and the main activity otherwise revolves around food,” said Naasani, a mother of six-year twins, who moved to Riyadh from Syria seven years ago.
Human Rights Watch said the gym licenses were a “leap forward” but the change would mainly impact an elite group.
“You still have to be wealthy to afford gym membership and a driver to get you there and a male guardian to agree,” said Minky Worden, HRW director of global initiatives.
She stressed the need for mandatory sport for girls in schools to make exercise a way of life and career choice.
“This is a missed economic opportunity for Saudis as, rather than rely on foreign gym operators, women should be able to open their own gyms, hire local trainers and create jobs for women who could be the next generation of entrepreneurs,” she said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation