go girls go!

Today several newspapers are reporting on a call from Human Rights Watch to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics this summer unless a female athlete is included in the delegation.

As usual, the focus is on women’s rights in this country, and rightly so. But I think this also brings to light other important issues around health and wellness that affect all sectors of society.

First, about the girls – there has never been physical education in the school system for girls. Thus a basic culture of physical activity and sport participation for girls does not exist yet. There are few, if no role models for young Saudi girls to participate in exercise. And it all starts at home, as we all know. If the previous generation of women didn’t grow up participating in exercise or sport, it’s more difficult to instill a cultural expectation for these activities for their daughters. Let’s think about that before we even consider the opportunities for female participation in elite competitive sport.

There is a movement among some scholars and government authorities to promote and implement physical education programs for girls in the school system. I know this because I have been working with some faculty at King Saud University who have been closely involved with this process. But it’s a slow process and they are facing lots of roadblocks and objections from different sectors of the ruling factions here. However, at a workshop I recently attended at King Saud University, I was encouraged to hear many of the male faculty, including the Rector of KSU no less, speak of their support for stronger engagement and participation of females in physical activity and sport.

I should note that it’s not as if the rest of the population are highly engaged in exercise and physical activity either. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of diabetes and obesity – statistics no doubt related to limited exercise and physical activity among the population, coupled with changing dietary and other lifestyle factors. There is growing awareness of the importance of exercise in health and wellness here, as in the rest of the world, but there continues to be a challenge in providing diverse opportunities to participate in physical activity.

Even Camelman finds it challenging to locate good places nearby to go for a jog outside, but he usually makes do with running around a swath of empty land near Ad Dir’iyah or just around his own neighbourhood. The only thing he has to deal with is the jeering honks of drivers passing by, who seem to find him amusing. But there are growing opportunities. In the 3 years since I’ve been traveling to Saudi, I’ve noticed an increasing number of fitness centres, including a Curves gym  in the female-only section of the Panorama Mall. There’s also a place called (of all things) the “Pregnant Woman’s Walk”. (No, it does not refer to the specific gait pattern of a pregnant woman!) This is a place where there is an especially broad sidewalk around the perimeter of Prince Sultan University, giving you a good 4 km of uninterrupted walking/running.

So back to the issue of the Olympics and the participation of female athletes: are there even any Saudi female elite athletes who can compete at the world level? Let’s get some gym classes going for the girls first!

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3 responses to “go girls go!

  1. Hey! I came across your blog while searching for more info on Saudi (blogs specifically and by women!) since I will be moving to Yanbu in August to teach at the International School there. Thanks for bringing a different and much needed perspective on life there — I’ve been anxious by the massive CNN effect but reading blogs such as yours put a lot of my worries at ease. This post in particular caught my eye because guess what I’ll be teaching? Phys Ed! According to the school, they haven’t had a female PE teacher in about 5 years so I am really looking forward to bringing forth some change. Though I am aware of the high inequality between genders, I actually did not know that PE was not offered AT ALL to Saudi girls. That actually breaks my heart — not only in regards to their health but all other senses of esteem and empowerment it brings (I guess that’s why they don’t want to have women experiencing it?). The demographic I will be teaching are mostly expats and like I said, I’ll be at an International school which is why it is allowed. This really puts things into perspective and hopefully I can get more girls here to realize how privileged they are to be able to participate! Keep blogging, it really does clear up a lot of misconceptions that others have! You can reach my blog at http://thisisblamiam.blogspot.com/.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, blam! Yes, it’s too bad that they don’t offer PE for girls here, but hopefully that will soon change. I don’t think it’s to do with not wanting the girls to experience esteem and empowerment. I think it’s more of just cultural attitudes towards exercising as an activity, per se. Even for the men, engaging in regular exercise for health and fitness is not that widespread. However, it’s definitely growing in popularity, judging by the increasing number of fitness clubs I have noticed opening up in the last couple of years!

  2. Pingback: girls’ gym classes | reflections in the sand

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