by Thomas W. Lippman
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia—On Palestine Street, in the heart of this steamy port city, the Baskin Robbins store and Dunkin’ Donuts have a new neighbor, Gold’s Gym.
Inside, the gym is presumably similar to others in the Gold’s chain, with the usual treadmills and muscle machines. But it’s hard to know, because unlike other Gold’s gyms, which feature big windows looking out to the street, this one is sealed off from the eyes of pedestrians outside by a solid black wall. A big sign on the wall—in gold letters, naturally—tells why: For Ladies Only.
Yes, it’s a gym for women. Until recently there was no such thing in this conservative country. Now there are many, another step in the march of Saudi women out of the past and into—well, if not the present, at least into the more recent past. Some girls now play sports in school, and in 2012 two women were members of Saudi Arabia’s team at the Olympic Games.
Exercise and participation in sports represent important progress for Saudi women, who have traditionally been excluded from most activities outside the home. It is not just a question of social evolution and liberalizing trends, it is a major public health issue. The kingdom has one of the world’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes. According to the International Diabetes Federation, more than 20 percent of all Saudi adults are afflicted with diabetes, which the government has recognized as a public health problem rivaling traffic deaths. A national diabetes research center is under construction at King Saud University in Riyadh. Local newspapers have reported that more than70 percent of adults over the age of 40 are medically obese.
The problem is acute among women. That is not surprising considering the nationwide addiction to fast food and the fact that until recently most women had little to do except shop and eat—although a male columnist for a local paper observed helpfully last week that women get more exercise than one might think just by doing their household chores.
Demand for exercise opportunities has been growing along with the need. A few years ago, an enterprising investor opened an all-female hotel in Riyadh—women only, guests and staff. A female journalist who went to report about it discovered that many of the rooms were rented not to travelers but to local women who wanted access to the gym.
The entire question of sports and organized exercise for women has long been controversial here. Women cannot just go out and run on the streets, or ride bicycles, as they do elsewhere. Until recently the country’s conservative religious establishment was firmly opposed to any form of exercise for women other than what they could do at home.
That is changing rapidly, as is the entire role of women in the kingdom. A newspaper reported the other day that the number of women holding full-time jobs in this country of nearly 30 million people rose from about 55,000 in 2010 to 216,000 in 2012 and the rate of employment is accelerating as more jobs are opened to women. The government has been encouraging the trend. By orders of King Abdullah, women now work in retail shops that cater to female customers, such as lingerie stores, from which they were banned until recently. In addition to their traditional jobs as teachers and pediatricians, women are employed by banks, insurance companies, the media, and even industry, in all-female factories. Now the government is reportedly directing private-sector employers to grant 10 weeks of paid maternity leave to full-time female workers.
More than half the students at Saudi universities now are female. That trend, coupled with the near-universal access to social media, has created a demand for exercise and physical conditioning, Saudi women say.
“People are promoting sports for girls, building walkways for them. It’s a big campaign,” said Samar Fatany, one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known advocates of women’s social advancement. Another, Reem Assad, an economist who led the campaign that resulted in the royal decree permitting women to work in shops, recalled that she was allowed to exercise as a girl—she took tae kwon do lessons—but “we were set back 20 years” by the conservative backlash that swept the country in the 1980s. Now given the opportunity once again, women are eager to work out, she said.
Over the nine years of his reign, King Abdullah has gradually but unmistakably opened social and professional space for women. He has appointed them to the consultative assembly, decreed that they will be allowed to run as candidates, and vote, in the next round of municipal elections, and encouraged the Ministry of Labor’s efforts to expand job opportunities. He has also reined in the social enforcers, often referred to as the religious police, who traditionally have roamed public spaces such as shopping malls to make sure the kingdom’s rigid code of behavior and gender separation was enforced.
For women seeking additional freedom, this may be the most important question as Saudi Arabia prepares for a transition from Abdullah, who is about 90, to the next king. Whichever prince inherits the throne can continue the liberalizing trend, or reverse it. Those gyms could still be shut down overnight.