Trying to find a women’s gym in Saudi Arabia? Ask for the ‘make-up room’

September 8, 2014

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia

Pity the female athlete in Saudi Arabia. Once again, the country is sending an all-male team to the Asian Games in South Korea — justifying its decision on the grounds that its women don’t quite make the grade. Officially, the line is that they’re not competitive enough. But how can anyone be a competitor in a country where just getting out to work out is almost impossible?

I spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia on a reporting trip in 2012. It was a time of tentative optimism, where Saudi women were keen to tell us of incremental changes in their lives. They still were forbidden to drive, travel abroad without male permission, eat alongside men in the food courts of their local mall or appear in public without a stiflingly hot abaya covering them from neck to ankle. But, for the first time, they were being allowed to buy their bras from women rather than men. (Yes, it matters.) Some of the more daring were able to add personal, decorative touches to the unrelenting black of their abayas, and there was even talk of women being included in the Saudi Olympics team later that year. More importantly, record numbers of women were being given scholarships for graduate study abroad.

If it wasn’t quite an Arab spring, the country at least seemed to be poised on the cusp of something. For me, though, one of the most telling signs of attitudes toward women was the obstacles to exercise.  My visit to Saudi Arabia was just a few weeks before I was due to take part in the New York City triathlon, but I quickly gave up hope of maintaining any sort of training program while I was there.

Our first hotel, an upscale establishment in Riyadh, boasted a well-equipped gym and pool. As a woman, I wasn’t even allowed to look at them (“there are men in swimsuits there,” a hotel staffer told me with horror) —let alone use them. There was a facility for women, but it was the gym that couldn’t say its name. Rather, we had to sidle up to the front desk, ask for the “make-up room”, and then wait for a male staff member to show us to a hotel suite equipped with the likes of a treadmill and a stationary bike.

We did the same dance at hotels in the port city of Jeddah and the oil-rich city of Dammam, asking hotel desk clerks for keys to the “spa” or “wellness” rooms so we could do a quick treadmill shuffle. For our final days in Riyadh, we decamped to an elegant all-women hotel with a real (small) pool, a weight room and proper equipment. Women shed their abayas at the door, female hotel staffers ran ahead of male maintenance workers to warn guests that a man was coming — there were even biggest-loser exercise classes. Still, there was an air of self-consciousness: one woman in spandex yelled at me in several languages for exposing her to view by holding the gym door ajar a beat too long.

At one point in our stay, several of my colleagues went off to watch a girls’ soccer team at practice. Arrangements for this had to be conducted with the same furtiveness and secrecy usually needed to interview dissidents in hiding. Some of the women we met in Riyadh told us that women who wanted to exercise did have more options than in the past. An all-women Curves gym that had opened in Riyadh quickly built up a waiting list. There was even a rudimentary walking path newly opened on the outskirts of the capital, where women in abayas slogged listlessly  through 90+ degree heat. But any sign of an exercise culture was completely absent.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, has told Reuters that Saudi Arabia is committed to sending female athletes to the next Olympics rather than to the Asian Games. That’s all well and good, but it’s hard to imagine that two years will be enough to build up world-class athletes in a country that excludes women from world-class facilities.

 

PHOTO: A Saudi woman takes to the road in protest against the kingdom’s ban on female drivers, October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

 

One comment

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Arabic women need to just leave those countries. We should give them asylum to the USA.

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[…] nog med att kvinnor inte får rösta – känner man för en svalkande simtur i swimmingpoolen går man också bet. De styrande i Saudiarabien anser att det är farligt frestande för kvinnor att ta ett dopp när […]

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