Saudi women's exercise woes

Two-thirds of the country's women are overweight or obese.

By Page Rockwell

Published May 18, 2006 11:34PM (EDT)

It's not exactly news that Saudi Arabia's restrictive laws and repressive culture disadvantage and even harm the country's women, but I was still sad to read today's Associated Press nonshocker: Sixty-six percent of Saudi women are overweight or obese, in part because their culture discourages them from exercising.

The AP reports, "They can try dieting, but you won't find many in aerobics classes or power-walking along this city's walking trails. And very few of their daughters attend schools that have physical education classes."

Moreover, "In Riyadh, hotel gyms and pools are off limits to women. Along the city's walking trails, where the women walk covered in the mandatory black cloaks, they are sometimes harassed by the muttawa." I can scarcely imagine how pissed I'd be if I were virtuously exercising in the desert heat while wearing a head-to-toe black cloak and some government-recognized religious policeman gave me a talking to.

Though Saudi law technically doesn't bar women from exercising outside their homes, conservative scholars and clerics strongly discourage the practice, both verbally and in anti-exercise materials: "At a clinic that treats obesity-related diseases, a booklet left by a writer named Muhammad al-Habdan warned that if girls' schools began P.E., Saudi girls would have to change into workout gear -- and good girls should not disrobe outside their homes. Changing in a locker room might cause them to lose the shyness that is the hallmark of good morals, the booklet warned. It went on to say that the girls might become attracted to each other after seeing their classmates in tight leotards and tops."

Detractors note that starting P.E. classes in boys education hasn't resulted in dramatic weight loss, and it's true that country's health woes are bigger than just a dearth of female-friendly exercise facilities. Most residents in the oil-rich, auto-centric nation eat rich food and seldom walk. Health advocates also note that the daytime fasting/nighttime bingeing cycle of Ramadan promotes weight gain. Still, the opposition to women exercising is part of the problem, and is rooted in a cultural attitude linking women's freedoms with the decline of civilization. The AP notes that the Saudi government is trying to educate the people about healthy eating habits, but on the other hand, the Ministry of Education recently issued a press release saying that rumors of imminent P.E. classes for girls were "baseless and misleading," according to the AP.

Sweeping changes to women's rights are, unfortunately, unlikely in the immediate future. But the country's culture behind closed doors can be very different from the public façade. Business mavens, take note: Now sounds like a great time for someone to develop a line of culturally sensitive home exercise videos.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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