JEDDAH (Reuters) - “Let her get fat!” is the slogan women in Saudi Arabia are using to challenge a clampdown on female-only gyms.
Unhappy at the growing number of unlicensed female gyms, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs recently closed two in the Red Sea city of Jeddah and one in the city of Dammam on the Gulf Arab coast for not having a license.
In response, newspaper columnists and bloggers are promoting the sarcastic line “let her get fat!” as a way of fighting back, though it is likely to be a losing battle.
In Saudi Arabia, where clerics have extensive influence in society, gyms are sexually segregated because of conservative tribal and religious values.
Female participation in sports has long been a controversial issue in the kingdom, with physical education banned from public girls’ schools and clerics issuing religious prohibitions on female participation in sports.
While male gyms get licenses from a government sports body, female gyms have no official authority overseeing them.
“The idea of female fitness is non-existent within our government,” said Fouziah Alouni, a prominent women’s rights campaigner.
“Depriving women of this is yet another way of marginalizing them. Give us a justifiable reason or leave woman alone. This is unbearable.”
The result has been high rates of diabetes and even bone frailty among women, which the Ministry of Health says it wants to combat.
“Football and basketball are sports that require a lot of movement and jumping,” Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, member of the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, said in a religious opinion published in Okaz newspaper Thursday.
He said such excessive movement may harm girls who are still virgins, possibly causing them to lose their virginity.
“There is a school of thought that unfortunately exists and which has a distorted interpretation of Islam,” said Lina Al-Maeena, who organises basketball training in Jeddah.
Women’s gyms can only exist inside hospitals as “health centres” supervised by the Ministry of Health but prices are so high, at least 1,000 riyals ($266) a month, that only the affluent can afford membership.
Cheaper versions have sprung up under name “beauty salon” or “studio” but now their future is in doubt.
Madawi Al-Hassoun of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce said the chamber has been trying for three years to find a government body prepared to take on board licensing female gyms.
“Some people don’t like women to go out of their homes. This is a common struggle for female businesses in Saudi,” she said.
Editing by Andrew Hammond and Paul Casciato