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!