Pulling no punches: Saudi woman boxer breaks exercise taboo

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Saudi gym owner Halah Alhamrani, 41, trains in her gym center in the coastal city of Jeddah. — AFP

Jeddah — Throwing punches in a gym tucked away from prying eyes, a Saudi female boxing trainer asserts a right — the right to exercise.

Halah Alhamrani, 41, runs a gym for women called FlagBoxing — its motto is Fight Like A Girl — in the western Red Sea city of Jeddah, offering fitness classes such as

calisthenics, CrossFit, boxing and kickboxing.

“On a daily basis, women who have never done sports walk into my class, some with their mothers,” Alhamrani told AFP at her gym, which opened in 2016.

“They walk out more confident. Many find their voice. The mothers approach me and say: ‹Thank you for offering such an empowering feeling’.”

At first blush, the gym screams California, not Saudi Arabia.

Wearing headbands and workout attire, women are seen lifting weights, practising sparring techniques and pounding their fists into a punching bag.

Around 150 women, including Saudis but also other Arabs, share a sense of camaraderie.

A note scribbled on a whiteboard reads: “I can’t wait to come back!”

Under Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan, the government is seeking to jump-start women’s sports.

Only four Saudi women featured in the Rio Olympics in 2016 after two were named in the team for London in 2012 — the first time the Gulf nation sent female athletes to the Games.

The Kingdom has since then been granting more prestige to the idea, appointing Princess Reema Bint Bandar to oversee women’s sports in the Kingdom in 2016.

The country is also moving toward compulsory physical education classes for girls.

Alhamrani is involved in shaping the new public school sports curriculum.

For now, her low-profile gym operates out of a residential complex, behind opaque glass walls with no outdoor signage.

The location is available on her website, but even so, some first-timers have to call to find their way.

Some clients view the gym sessions as therapy, Alhamrani said. It offers them such a release that she says some of them end up crying.

“I used to be a timid mother who could not look people in the eye,” said a 36-year-old housewife and mother-of-four, and a regular at the gym.

“The gym gave me a voice that I had lost. It gave me strength that I never knew existed.”

Women’s gyms are slowly proliferating.

“Sports is empowerment,” said Lina Almaeena, a member of the advisory Shoura Council, and director of Jeddah United, Saudi Arabia’s first women’s basketball team. “We are not fighting for mixed gender, abaya-less sporting events. Our aim is not to go against our culture. Our goal is mass participation of women in sports.” — AFP


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