If Saudi Women Are Not Permitted to do Anything, at Least Let Them Exercise

One of the puzzling aspects about being a Saudi woman is the pressure from family, peers and even society to be a good Muslim woman. Be modest in public. Show your charms to your husband at home. We have an obligation to look our best.

Equally puzzling are the obstacles thrown in our way at every turn to be that good Muslim woman, not to mention the hypocrisy. For generations the Saudi female has been denied the right to physical exercise, this mundane yet vitally healthy aspect of living an active and happy life that benefits not only the woman but her entire family.

The absence of female physical education in Saudi schools has been for so long that few of us even consider the impact it has had on our society. I never participated in physical education as a child and it was only five years ago that I gave exercise any serious thought when I bought my first pair of walking shoes. For many young women outside of Saudi Arabia, jogging or walking is a part of their lifestyle and the day's routine. For us in Saudi Arabia, the mere thought of venturing outside for a jog or walk is laughable because it's considered eccentric. It has nothing to do with the heat.

Just a few months ago, Saudi women discovered that unlicensed women's gyms were to be shut down. The irony is that the gyms are unlicensed because there is no government authority willing to assume the responsibility of issuing them.

Now comes Dr. Ali Abbas Al-Hakami, who belongs to the Board of Senior Ulema. Dr. Hakami offers women a glimmer of hope that may turn the tide of how Saudi society views the concept of female exercise. Dr. Hakami asserts that not only is exercise for women permitted under Sharia, but is a necessity.

"There is nothing stopping setting up women's sports clubs provided nothing forbidden by Sharia occurs, such as mixing with men, exposing what should not be exposed, and other issues forbidden by Sharia,"

Hakami told a Gulf reporter.

Makes sense. Of course, we have heard that before about women driving. But I still haven't received my Saudi driver's license in the mail.

The difference here is that Saudi Arabia is faced with some real urgent health issues. Thirty-five percent of the adult Saudi population is obese. One in four Saudi children has diabetes. Satellite television has brought pressure to Saudi women to look like models. This has led to Lina Almaeena, the founder of the Kingdom's Jaguars, a women's Jeddah United Sports basketball team, to point out that many Saudi women suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, in which women have a skewed idea of what their bodies should look like.

This is the first I have heard such a thing, but it makes sense. The global community has gotten considerably smaller in the past decade thanks to television and the Internet and the image we have of ourselves has changed dramatically. How can a Saudi woman not compare herself to Tyra Banks or empathize with Oprah Winfrey's fluctuating weight?

Almaeena, in an interview with a Gulf newspaper, argued that women's sports are a necessity and no longer an option.

The benefits of physical exercise aside - really, that's a given - it's a matter of self-esteem. For all the times Saudi women are told that they are respected and must show respect in return, the Saudi woman must respect herself first. And that is severely lacking, which leads to depression. Consider the fact that Saudi women in general can't drive, can't travel alone and must answer to just about everybody in the household before blowing their noses. Then mix in all those helpful critiques from mom, dad, sisters and brothers about your less than perfect body. Suddenly, mental health becomes a real problem.

If our society decides that cinemas are not in the best interest of Saudis and that it's better to have unannounced inspections of resorts to ensure we are living moral lives, then perhaps we should consider other activities that allow women an outlet other than going to Chili's on Thursday night.

Licensing women's sports clubs seems to be a reasonable, although partial, answer to this issues. Saudi women's options are few these days. If it doesn't conflict with Sharia, what are we waiting for?