Monday, April 27, 2009

No more working out for Saudi women

I see articles or scholarly presentations about the "progress" of women in the Middle East, especially in countries or regions in which there is little separation between Islam as a religion and Islam as a government.
Invocations of progress always raise those little red flags for me, but I, too, was pleased to see more Muslim women or women living under Islamic rule, working out, participating in sports, and generally finding their own place and activities in sport and physical activity. From adaptations to fitness clothing to facilities, it seemed that more and more women had the opportunity to become physically activity and even compete at the highest levels of their chosen sport.
In Saudi Arabia, a country with very strict regulations on women's movements, habits, and dress; a country that has never sent a woman to the Olympics; many women-only gyms were sprouting up and becoming quite popular. But many are now being closed. Gyms in Saudi Arabia need licenses and though the government can license men's gyms, the only women's gyms that can receive licenses must be affiliated with medical groups. But these clubs are more expensive. And there seems to be no good reason why various government departments will not license commercial gyms even for owners who already run licensed male-only gyms.
The emergence of women's gyms has created some consternation among clerics who have "warned that women would be tempted to leave their homes and neglect their husbands and children."
And for all those Westerners who think Saudi women or Muslim women generally are passive and letting their religion just walk all over them, there has been an online protest of the closures entitled Let Her Get Fat. [Not sure about the issues that seem to emerge here around cultural standards of beauty...]
Interesting is this article from the Guardian that suggests that in exchange for even greater limitations on their physical activity, women in Saudi Arabia may get to vote very soon. Hmm...there's a great paper in this about nationalism and physical fitness. Of course it remains to be seen whether this rumor of suffrage materializes or how the protest against the closure of many facilities will proceed.

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