NEWSFLASH: Gym Classes Opened to Saudi Girls

2914401907_52938f80cb_zFor the first time, schools in Saudi Arabia will offer gym classes to girls. As the country’s obesity rate for women and young people climbs, many welcome the change.

“I think it’s a big deal because this is a way of acknowledging publicly that women need to get the same treatment or care that males do,” said Nejda Nejm, who helped found Glowfit, the first licensed gym for women in the country.

According to NPR, some religious conservatives are bemoaning the change, arguing that “exercise for girls is a Westernizing influence, that it has no place in the kingdom and could lead to adultery and prostitution.” However the World Health Organization recommends children—both girls and boys—ages 5 to 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.

The change comes just three years after Saudi Arabia sent its first-ever women athletes to the Olympics. Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani competed in the London Games in the 800m run and judo competitions, respectively. Attar, who trains in the U.S., told the BBC, “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport.” Both athletes were required by Saudi Arabia to wear head coverings while competing.

While gym classes are a big step forward for Saudi girls, women in the country still can’t legally drive cars. Last year, women began campaigning online for the right to drive, asking other women to share photos or videos of themselves behind the wheel in defiance of the law.

In December, however, two Saudi women driving activists were imprisoned for two months for attempting to drive into the country from nearby United Arab Emirates. Women have previously been jailed and whipped for attempting to drive.

And as recently as 2011, a Saudi woman was beheaded for practicing “witchcraft and sorcery”—so there’s still a long way to go before Saudi women achieve anything resembling social equality.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user marviikad licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About

Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.