Saudi Women Call Foul on Exercise Restrictions

May 12, 2008 07:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
Women’s basketball games have to be as heavily cloaked as the players themselves when out in public, but they may make inroads into changing attitudes about women’s health.


 Saudi Women Athletes



In a women’s only gymnasium in Saudi seaport town Jeddah, with little public fanfare, the Jaguars and Jeddah United shed their all-enveloping abayas for jerseys to duke it out on the basketball court.

In a country where the clerics interpret sharia law—effectively the nation’s constitution—to such a degree of severity that they can find scriptural justification for banning exercise, such sports events must remain largely underground affairs.

Women in the country are not allowed to go out in public without the accompaniment of an immediate male relative, a rule that Human Rights Watch called tantamount to being treated as “perpetual minors.”

On top of the socio-religious pressures, rising incomes in this emerging market nation has led to increasing reliance on fast food. Some two-thirds of Saudi women are obese, according to The Washington Post.

Women who go on “power walks” face harassment from the “mutawwa,” or religious police. A booklet left at a weight-control clinic suggested that physical education classes for girls would require them to take off their clothes outside of the home—already considered offensive—and change in front of one another, possibly invoking forbidden homosexual feelings.

The female basketball players thus see themselves as trailblazers in the ultraconservative nation—and not just as the sort from Portland. Lina Al-Meena, team captain and founder of Jeddah United, told the Associated Press, “One day we’re going to look back on such events and hopefully say, ‘Wow, we’ve gone a long way.’”


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