Every day around 5 p.m. Nihad Al-Ghaleb leaves her home. Draped in an abaya and hijab, she puts her phone and keys in a pouch that hangs around her waist and walks to the Corniche where she jogs.
Al-Ghaleb, a slim lady in her forties, is not the only one there. Starting with a small number of pregnant women going for a daily stroll around the many walled empty lands in the city, which aptly came to be known as ‘Pregnant Ladies Walk’, awareness of the necessity to exercise has been growing steadily over the years.
However, for women in particular, the options to stay fit are limited. There are only a handful of gyms for them and exercising in public is still frowned upon by many – both men and women. But can we blame the lack of facilities for the Kingdom’s ever-growing obesity rate, estimated by some to be effect 70 percent of the adult female population?
Al-Ghaleb thinks we cannot. “If you want to exercise outdoors you can manage. Put your abaya on and do it, regardless of the weather.” She thinks having more gyms is not the solution since many women sign up simply to socialize or be part of a certain activity because it’s considered stylish.
She did however admit that gyms are important since many women do join for health reasons and awareness of the importance of staying physically fit.
Yasmin Gahtani, 34, agrees and goes even further: “I don’t like gyms for both genders. I think it’s an unhealthy, unnatural method to try to stay fit,” she said while using the word “industrial” to describe gyms. Like Al-Ghaleb, she believes in the adage “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
“If you want, you can always come up with ideas to stay healthy such as rock climbing, cycling, running. There are outdoor tennis courts on the Corniche, a baseball field in Saudi City, Shoaiba where you can go swimming, off-road biking and join trekking groups. No one should blame the weather because the body can adapt,” said Gahtani, a mother of two who maintains an active lifestyle. She kite surfs, goes jogging on the walkway and takes her two boys to soccer classes on Tahlia St.
So, is the obesity issue among women purely caused by laziness and alternated food habits? Is it merely an excuse to say “we are obese because of our environment?” For some women, the lack of gyms or other proper sports facilities certainly is a problem.
Take Esraa Saad, a 25-year-old marketing student. She enjoys outdoor sports but that is not an option for her. “I can’t run with an abaya on. It’s weird, uncomfortable and not accepted.” Saad, who comes from a middle-class family who regularly travels abroad, said her family would call it a disgrace if she jogged in the streets of Jeddah. Although she wants to join a gym, there isn’t one near her home and the family’s driver who also has to drive her sisters and mother, is not always available.
“I think all of us women want to take part in sports but we can’t. We can’t because of the culture. When we travel abroad, we can do whatever we want. We can run in the streets without getting bad looks from people. It’s more comfortable to be active and play sports outside of the country than it is inside.”
And despite promises from the authorities to introduce physical education classes at girls’ schools, the gap between sports facilities at boys’ and girls’ schools is still immense.
According to Saad, who studies at the College of Business Administration (CBA) in Jeddah, the same college’s Dahban Campus for men offers extensive sports facilities, including a swimming pool and soccer fields. Last year, the girls’ campus saw its first basketball court.
Privately, students arranged a bus to take girls to a horse stable on the outskirts of the city.A female trainer at the stables teaches the tricks and skills of equestrian sports.
While the situation for women is slowly improving, running outside is still a distant dream for many Saudi women who live in a culture that rejects idea of women working out in public. Even Gahtani admits she felt a bit nervous the first few times she went for a jog outside.
“People were looking at me,” she said, adding that she does not care anymore if people look. “No one can stop me, but I never get comments. People admire my courage.”
Al-Ghaleb, who describes herself to be “old enough” to have a “well-shaped personality” and to not care when being harassed, nevertheless used to go home crying when motorists stopped their car to take pictures, shout dirty comments, swear at and even insult her. And it wasn’t only the men.
“Even women sometimes stop asking God to forgive me. I heard it and thought, ‘What am I doing wrong? I am wearing hijab and an abaya.’ I regularly see how women suffer when they jog or walk outdoors,” she said.
Al-Ghaleb now wears headphones and ignores everyone around her. “Even if someone stops in front of me, I just push him away and continue. This sort of attitude toward women working out in public has to stop.”
Her friend Areej Mufti, 43, experienced the same kind of harassment and has stopped walking outside as a result. “Taxis stopped me every five minutes.
Even when I went walking with my kids I got harassed by motorists,” she said while recalling one evening a motorist embarrassed her in front of her kids. “My son was 10 years old at the time and asked me ‘mom, why is he saying that to you?’ So, I stopped taking them,” Mufti said.
When harassment or family members who do not like to see their wives or daughters going outside for a jog, stops many women from exercising outdoors, the gym – albeit expensive and far away – is often their only choice. But are these so-called health clubs the solution?
Mufti has been going to a gym for the past 13 years but faces several challenges. Outdated classes, lack of rules and last-minute cancellation of classes are some of the problems she listed. And then there are the comments from family and friends.
“They say, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t need it. Just modify your diet.’ For me, going to the gym is an investment for the future.”
Since she moved to an apartment complex that has its own gym, Mufti now works out at home. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the gym is reserved for women, while men can go the 21 hours before and after that.
According to her, women residents had to fight for the three hours and the management said it had received several complaints and threats from men.
Having joined a number of gyms in town throughout the years, Al-Ghaleb considers herself a bit of a gym rat but three years ago, she decided to stop going and instead made the street her gym. “Why? First of all, the location: The few gyms I can go to are all far from where I live.
Then there is the lack of parking; I’m going for one class and I don’t need the driver to go back home. I just want him to stay for one, one and a half hour. There aren’t parking spaces for drivers to wait in though.”
Another common challenge is gym fees, which many feel are too high. The gym Al-Ghaleb last joined charged an annual fee that ranged between SR7,000 to SR27,000. There is also the issue of a negative workout atmosphere and members who come to gossip more than they do to work out.
“It’s just gossip, gossip, gossip. Once you enter, all you hear is ‘why did you cut your hair?’ or ‘oh, you got divorced!’ I go to the gym to clear my mind and do something healthy, not to get slapped with gossip and social problems.”
Mufti agrees. “They don’t stop asking you questions about your private life. Or they socialize together on the treadmill. You hear all their stories and you get sick of it.”
So although gyms are not a solution to the obesity epidemic among women, better sports facilities – both indoor as outside – in addition to a change in mentality are necessary steps.
This would also benefit the male population who also struggles with obesity rates nearly as high as women.
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