The freedom to...exercise?
by Gracie Remington
As written up in yesterday’s issue of The Guardian, Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its less-than-progressive policies towards women, is considering legally restricting gym licensing to men-only facilities, effectively shutting down all of the women-only gyms across the country. The current gyms, currently unlicensed and therefore illegal, would be forced to close under this new measure, leaving Saudi women without the option to go to a gym facility to exercise.
While this issue certainly seems ridiculous from a Western perspective, especially given the ubiquitous gym facilities catering to members of both sexes in both the United States and elsewhere, this ban not only emphasizes the lack of rights given to women in Saudi Arabia, but also highlights tensions that have arisen as the nation has attempted to increase women’s rights and their participation in the public sphere. This announcement about the closing of said illegal, female-only gym facilities comes soon after a government official mentioned the possibility of expanding the right to vote in municipal elections to cover women and after Saudi Arabia appointed its first female deputy minister. While the deputy minister may oversee a department for female students, and while Saudi women may not be allowed to drive or go anywhere without the company of a male family member, these changes seemed to reflect at least the possibility of future reforms in regards to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
As the current gym crisis shows, however, the systems necessary to implement and expand upon these initial innovations have yet to be established. Bader Al-Shibani, a businessman who had attempted to legally open and operate a female-only gym, was quoted in The Guardian’s article and described his attempts to secure governmental permission as “running into a brick wall.” No department claimed authority over the licensing of gyms for women; ultimately, Al-Shibani abandoned his project. As leading Saudi clerics have decried female-only gyms as promoting “shamelessness” and claimed that such facilities would prompt women to leave their homes and abandon their families, only two gyms have been legally taken to task. Paradoxically, there exists neither a system to establish these gyms nor a system to abolish them, evidently. While women’s suffrage is gaining ground in Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that the infrastructure needed to promote women’s rights is not there; however, the apparent decay of the system needed to keep these liberties in check at least promises potential future freedom for the women of Saudi Arabia.