Public schools in Saudi Arabia have long been segregated by gender, with only boys allowed to participate in sports. But NPR reports the country has taken some progressive steps, partly in response to a rise in obesity that’s most prominent among women, children, and teenagers. A new change: it is now mandatory for girls to take gym class, just like boys.
Saudi Arabia’s first licensed fitness center for women is named GlowFit and has the trappings of a western gym – a smoothie bar, spin class. It also has a prayer room and prayer mats.
But the mats don’t seem to be enough to convince religious conservatives that physical fitness for women and girls is important to their health and well-being. Instead, these conservatives have accused exercise of beiing a Westernizing influence with no place in the kingdom, NPR reports. They even say exercise could lead to adultery and prostitution, according to TIME.
Hoda al-Helaissi was one of the 30 women appointed to the Shura Council, a government advisory board that makes recommendations to the Saudi king. One recommendation was to include physical education for girls. Al-Helaissi told NPR, “It’s like us, when we first went into the council. You think it wasn’t done with a lot of opposition. That first year was very difficult, very difficult,” she says. “You got hate mail on your private mail. Twitter was talking about it. everywhere. But society got used to it.” She says the conservatives will grow to accept it as well, eventually.
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