Saudi Women Will Run The Kingdom
Saudi Arabia effectively banned women’s sports for decades. Exercising in public has long been a cultural taboo. But Kingdom-wide, groups of robed runners have taken to the paths and streets, proving that change is coming.
For decades, women’s sports were effectively banned in Saudi Arabia. But change is coming...
NESREEN GHONAIM STEPS OFF THE KERB AND INTO TRAFFIC. CARS SLOW, ALLOWING US TO CROSS. IT’S A FEW MINUTES PAST 7PM AND THE RUNNING GROUP SHE LEADS IS WAITING. SHE HUSTLES DOWN THE WALKWAY, A WIDE MERIDIAN STRETCHING THE CENTRE OF TAHLIA, ONE OF THE BUSIEST SHOPPING STREETS IN THE PORT CITY OF JEDDAH. HER BLACK ABAYA, THE LONG ROBE WOMEN MUST WEAR IN PUBLIC, SWISHES AROUND HER CALVES.
Nesreen is 43, with warm eyes, and curls that bounce as she moves through the evening crowd. About 15 women wait in the walkway. They all wear abayas, running shoes, and various forms of head covering, from the veiled niqab to a loose hijab, or none at all. The women – mothers, professionals, students – smile and embrace us when we arrive. This is JRC Women, a division of the local running group Jeddah Running Collective, which Nesreen heads. They’ve recently launched a couch-to-5K programme for newcomers.
“All right, gather round,” says Raghad Almarzouki, 31, who coaches JRC Women with Arwa Alamoudi, also 31. “We’ll run down the walkway, out to the grassy area and back,” she says, detailing the 5K route. She waves her hand, “Yalla.” Let’s go.
The women take off down the path, a mosque across the street on one side, a female-only gym franchise on the other. Couples stroll, children dash about. A man kneels on a prayer rug. Veiled women walk with cell phones to their ears, and SUVs, luxury sedans, and the occasional rundown Toyota whiz by.
The moment seems ordinary: a group of women out for a run in a city. Except that it’s revolutionary. The Saudi Arabian government, a monarchy that follows a conservative form of Shariah law, effectively banned women’s sports for decades. In the 1960s, when the country launched widespread public schooling, it prohibited phys ed and sports for girls and barred women from participating in sports. When JRC was founded in late 2013, the country had no women’s running groups.
Now, from the western city of Jeddah, to the capital, Riyadh, to eastern Khobar, women are running in the streets, claiming a place and activity long considered inappropriate for their gender. In each city the running scene is a unique blend of the women themselves, the run groups, and the local political climate. The common thread: the women, and the men supporting them, are committed to advancing Saudi culture around women’s sports.
“Saudi society has traditionally viewed women exercising in public as taboo or improper,” says Mezna AlMarzooqi, PhD, a public health professor at King Saud University in Riyadh who researches activity levels among young, educated Saudi women. As recently as 2016, women who wanted to slip out for an 8K worried they would be stared at, harassed, or even stopped by the Mutawwa, Saudi’s religious police who enforce the strict mores on modest dress and behaviour. Historically, the Saudi government believed interactions between unrelated men and women could lead to immoral behaviour, so Saudi became the most gender-segregated country in the world. Restaurants have separate sections. Some shopping malls have female-only floors. Almost all schools are single-sex, as are universities. And until
recently, the government did not issue licences for women’s gyms.
So women ran on treadmills at home. They held yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, and other fitness classes at their houses. They engineered creative workarounds for licensing by fronting a gym with a seamstress shop, or opening in a hospital or hotel, where a licence wasn’t required. Some women joined running groups and fitness classes inside walled compounds – gated communities where foreign workers live more Western lifestyles.
Back on the Tahlia walkway, we run alongside high walls, ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia for privacy, and eventually come to a wide grassy field where the women move through conditioning drills – lunges, squats, leg swings – sweat glistening on their faces. The run back is quieter, heat and humidity weighing everyone down. After post-run high-fives, the women gather for the requisite group-run selfie.
ASK WESTERNERS WHAT THEY know about Saudi Arabia, and you’ll hear two points: oil wealth, and its oppressive laws and practices against women. Yet the JRC Women don’t fit that part – they have a joie de vivre, a badass quality. As Mashael Al-Shehri, 22, one of the first female JRC members, puts it, “There’s no law that says women can’t run. It’s just not common – it goes against our culture.”
I’ve followed JRC for three years, talking and emailing with dozens of women and men. They’ve been patient in explaining the nuances of Saudi life, and the challenges and joys of running (and running with men).
They say that genders are segregated, but this feels ‘normal’. And while women’s and mixed running are not yet common, the goal is to make what seems radical become ordinary.
“We didn’t think it was bold at the time,” says JRC founder Rod. (He asked that his last name be withheld; he was jailed by the religious police in 2013 and 2014 for running in public with women.) In 2011, Rod began running Jeddah’s walkways, and noted that no women were out running. So he and two friends set up a Tumblr and Facebook page and launched JRC as a mixed group in 2013. They quickly realised not all Saudi women were comfortable running with men, so they created JRC Women.
Both groups grew steadily. People did stare at the women. Some men yelled at them to go inside, to stop running. The hashtag #YouAreNotAllowedToDoThat appeared in Arabic on Twitter next to a video of a woman running. Still, each week, Rod and Nesreen responded to inquiry after inquiry, and more women – and men – joined them.
Then, one day in 2016, a mixed JRC group was stopped by two religious police. They asked the men why they were doing ‘such things’, Rod told me. “We were like, ‘What things? We’re stretching to get ready for our usual run.’” The police rounded up five male runners and took them in for questioning.
“It was ridiculous,” Nesreen told me. “Stopped for what? For promoting something that is good for human beings.”
None in the group thought about stopping – running had already changed their lives. Nesreen had been a pack-a-day smoker, lost in her work, motherhood and marriage when she learned about JRC. “I found myself through running,” she says. She brings her son, Saif Al-Turki, 19, on group runs, and it’s brought them closer. Raghad’s sister suffered from depression, and their home felt like a dark place. “Being able to run was freedom,” she says. “It saved me from going into my own depression.” For Arwa, running helped her gain more self-esteem and confidence: “Challenge yourself, see your limits. I understood this from running.”
JRC ran on, finding the line between respecting culture and working to change it. At Saturday morning promenade runs, men and women started at opposite ends and waved as they passed. Often, they disappeared into the Hejaz Mountains, where women could run with no abayas or Mutawwa on patrol.
But by then, Saudi was changing. More women entering the business sector. Young people mixing in cafés. Women sworn in to the Shura, the government’s advisory council. A month after JRC’s incident, the government stripped the religious police of their power to arrest. And announced sweeping economic and social reforms in a plan called Vision 2030, including a commitment to sports participation for all. They sent four women to the 2016 Olympics, and created a national sports federation women’s division.
“We’re part of the change going on right now,” Nesreen says of JRC’s effort to shift cultural attitudes about mixing and women’s running. “But it doesn’t come overnight.”
What confused me was what I wasn’t hearing. Saudi women still live under a guardianship system that requires a man’s permission – father, husband, brother, son – to travel internationally, marry, and sometimes, seek medical attention or work. A guardian can file a legal complaint against a woman for disobedience. His permission is necessary for her to leave jail. The country’s authoritarian, conservative theocracy silenced peaceful dissent as recently as May 2018.
Yet when I asked about barriers, the women cited the oppressive heat. When I asked what made them passionate about the sport, they told me about the satisfaction of finishing a Spartan race in nearby Dubai, which allows women to race, or the beauty of an early-morning run in the mountains. Most talked about their love of running and the community. But they said nothing about restricted lives or running for liberation. Wasn’t this a revolution? What was I missing?
TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE emerging women’s running scene in Saudi Arabia, I flew to the country for three weeks, splitting time in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Khobar. Jeddah is the county’s liberal heart, where change begins. Women started wearing coloured abayas here. It’s where JRC slowly expanded into JRC Women, and where the latest running group, Jeddah Runners, now welcomes both sexes. It’s also where the nation’s changing rules are most visible. On the bike path along the Red Sea, women and men can be seen running and cycling, separate but together, part of the expanding fitness scene for both genders. The municipal stadium now opens a night a week for community sports; men, women, kids all run, cycle, and play in a place where Saudi women were previously banned. (See ‘A Changing Nation’, p58.) “You can feel the change all around,” Nesreen says. “There’s a real community feel around fitness.”
This doesn’t mean the tension’s gone. “You find people who think this is too much,” Nesreen tells me, referring to both women’s running and mixed groups. What’s more, not all women think running is the right vehicle for advocacy. When I asked Rasha Alharbi, 45, a founder of Bliss Runners, Jeddah’s second club, if she saw her group as part of the push for women’s freedoms, she quickly called me out. “Westerners always want it to be about women’s rights,” she said. “Saudi people are talking freely about important issues for women, and it’s time for those discussions. Is that through running? I don’t know. My emphasis is on health.”
There’s good reason for that. Western fastfood chains have popped up in Saudi cities, and the increase in processed foods and portion sizes, along with a predominantly sedentary lifestyle – Saudi Arabia was the third most inactive nation in a 2012 Lancet report – has contributed to an obesity crisis; 70% of the adult population is estimated to be overweight or obese. And women have a higher obesity rate than men; researchers attribute this in part to unequal access to sports.
Bliss’s coach, Muna Shaheen, 50, a certified personal trainer, watched people she knew in
Jeddah suffer due to high blood pressure and diabetes. “I don’t want to be like them,” she says. “We want to create a different society, a healthy one for ourselves and our children.”
Which is why Bliss created a teen division, Jeddah Teen Bolts, open to girls and boys. “We shouldn’t have to drive our kids to separate gyms, or have the boys outside and the girls and women inside a compound,” Rasha says. “We want to be outside together.”
One evening I run with the Bolts. While they don’t say much about health, they have strong opinions about mixing. Aroub, an articulate 13-year-old, says, “We’re going to be mixing in the workplace, so we might as well learn to communicate with the opposite gender now.” A boy drops back and joins Aroub and me. “I thought you might want the male perspective,” he says, grinning. “Running with girls gives you more respect for women, because we’re running the same distance and speed.” Later, Hala, 16, tells me it’s important for women to be seen running. “It opens minds about the ‘Ideal Saudi Woman’, seen as covered and not moving,” she says. “That’s not the Saudi woman I am.”
Saudis talk openly about their culture, religion, and reforms (many women told me that ‘the air changed’ when the government announced in September 2017 that women would drive), along with the more delicate matter of guardianship. The harsh reality is that Saudi women have only as much freedom as their families allow.
“My father was open-minded,” Nesreen tells me. “He believed in education and equality. I had no restrictions.” But a woman in Nesreen’s office lived freely until her father died, and now her brother prohibits her from travelling. Al-Batool Baroom, 36, a JRC member and commercial director of women’s fitness chain Studio55, says she makes her own choices. But Studio55 founder Fatima Batook had to wait two years for her brother’s permission to marry the man she loved.
Most women I interviewed run with the full support of their families. But one runs with JRC Women despite her parents’ disapproval. Another says she chooses not to share that she runs in the streets, and
“THERE IS NO LAW THAT SAYS WOMEN CAN’T RUN. IT’S JUST NOT COMMON – IT GOES AGAINST OUR CULTURE.”
sometimes with men, for fear a male family member may try to stop her.
“Some women feel like hostages to their guardians; I find that appalling and unacceptable,” says JRC member Mohammed AlQatari. “My wife and kids, including my 15-year-old Maria, have complete freedom to decide for themselves – travel, study, friendships. I am here to guide, not to confiscate her right to choose.”
Mohammed, like many runners I spoke with, hopes to see women’s freedoms fully restored in law at a faster pace. Islam teaches equality, he says, pointing out that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives led an army after his death, riding alongside tens of thousands of men. Nesreen tells me, “In the days of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, women were treated equally.”
The Saudis I spoke to were quick to disconnect Islam from their country’s practices. “How we live in Saudi is based on culture, not religion,” Raghad says one afternoon over coffee with me and Arwa. “Whoever put these rules in place may have done so in the name of religion, but that by no means makes them Islamic rules.” The abaya and driving are examples: modesty is a tenet of Islam, but it doesn’t stipulate that women must wear abayas. And women drive in other Muslim nations.
“And the ban on women’s sports?” I ask. “The old mentality,” says Arwa. “But it comes from the top; if the rulers say
something” – women may drive, or participate in sports – “people trust them and accept it.”
Scan Riyadh from above, and among the skyscrapers and boulevards you’ll see the walled compounds where the majority of women run. Riyadh is the country’s religious and political centre, and the pressure to follow tradition is strong. While the city’s first women’s group, Riyadh Urban Runners, began running in public in 2016, most female runners still prefer logging kays in compounds, largely exempt from social norms, or inside female college campuses, where women can run without abayas.
“Women’s running is an emerging scene in Riyadh. We have women who like running, but are nervous to run in public,” says Amal Maghazil, 31, a mom and speech pathologist who heads Riyadh Urban Runners. But the handful I speak to in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter – a walled-off complex of embassies, schools, housing, and restaurants – have no interest in running the streets just yet. “I’m waiting for society to be ready,” says one.
“We have a collective society that emphasises the group over the individual – acting outside deep-rooted gender roles can put you outside the group,” says Mezna AlMarzooqi. Her dissertation examined activity levels among female college students; 94 per cent of the women she surveyed were insufficiently active, because of social and family beliefs. “So campus is a good place for women to start running,” she says. “Inside, we’re not breaking any social norms.”
Mezna felt the tug between running and culture. She began a walk-run programme in Australia when getting her PhD, and the first time she ran an entire 5K she was elated. Back in Saudi, conducting research interviews, female students told her their families wouldn’t let them walk in the street without a guardian, or they were afraid to walk alone. “I felt sad for them – then I realised I was one of them,” she says. “I didn’t have the freedom to head out my front door.” But it occurred to her she could run on campus, and she set out one afternoon. “Women clapped for me. I knew I wanted this for others.”
This year Mezna founded KSU Movement, the first women’s running initiative at a Saudi university. I line up with 30-odd students doing a 5K and she sends us off for three loops around campus. I run with Dana Amlih, a 19-year-old. She’s blown away when I mention Jeddah’s sports abayas. “There’s a sports abaya?” she says, her eyes wide. She tells me she joined the club because she wants to run a marathon. When I run a loop solo and reconnect with her, she’s amazed I didn’t have to walk, and grills me about training. I tell her that Riyadh Urban Runners are running in the streets. She grins, and I can see her mind turning.
After the run, I sit with a 20-year-old nursing student who dreamed of running in other countries because she couldn’t run at home. Her parents said it was taboo, something one cannot do in front of men. But they permitted her to run with the campus group. Today’s only the second time she’s run outdoors. “I love being outside, being free.”
I tell her about Riyadh Urban Runners, too. “I would like to see women running in the streets; it’s my dream!” she says, smiling. “I want to race, too. And do karate. I want it all.”
Somaya AlGhazali hops out of an Uber in a black abaya. She’s 25, a graphic designer, and the founder of Khobar Running Crew, the Eastern region’s only women’s running club. She embraces me as if I’m a long-lost friend. (We’re meeting for the first time.)
It’s evening; men work out on outdoor fitness equipment in Khobar, part of the Dammam metro, home to the oil company that brought foreigners to the region in the ’60s and ’70s, placing the city culturally between open Jeddah and conservative Riyadh.
Somaya and I run along the promenade. Two to four women ran with her this spring, but tonight it’s just her; it’s still a new group. Somaya began running the promenade solo in 2014 after her mother died, and now divides her life into ‘before running’ and ‘after running’. “I focus better, think better, sleep better, and feel in control as a person.” After featuring as one of the country’s few female
runners in a magazine, women requested she start a club.
She put the word out, and friends began joining her in October 2017. But few returned.
“They hated running in abayas,” she says. “It was difficult for me in the beginning, too, but you find a light one that’s shorter than most, and you get used to it.”
Khobar promenade shows signs of the changing times. Ongoing construction is a government effort to provide more recreation space. Crews are setting up a car show for women. Saudi held the first official women’s race on city streets in Al-Ahsa, about 500km north of Khobar, in March, and more than 1 500 women ran, all in black abayas. A video of it went viral, garnering angry comments such as ‘God will ask you about this vulgarity’, and ‘Our conservative society has begun to slip away, and its moral decline is infused with Western ideas’.
But every runner I speak to in Saudi is focused on the overwhelmingly positive response women’s running is receiving. That energy’s in the air. Veiled women give me the thumbs-up as I run solo; another stops me and is delighted to learn about the Khobar crew. This is the revolution. “Come, join us, change your life,” Nesreen would say.
When Saudi women talk of the future, they see women’s running growing – more women, more races, more choices. Already, JRC, Riyadh Urban Runners, and the Khobar crew have formed The Running Collectives, a nationwide umbrella group. And the Riyadh Half Marathon, which held its first race for men this past February, has announced a women’s race for 2019.
Some even predict running in abayas will be optional in six months. “But we don’t want females running in sports bras,” says Nesreen, summing up the view of most women I spoke to. “We’re Muslims. Modesty is good.”
Saudis will tell you the current reforms are helping to push the country further into the modern world – or back to the true equality of Islam, as some suggest. This excites the runners. Mohammed says nothing is sweeter than knowing his daughter is growing up with the freedom to run. Nesreen’s son Saif tells me the expansion of running, cycling, and triathlon is giving boys and girls in his generation more to do besides sniffing glue.
“The story is about more than running,” Nesreen says. “When you run, you search for yourself, find yourself, improve yourself.” She believes this is what’s happening to the Saudi people, and by extension, their country. “Running is learning you can do more and be more,” she says, “and it has no gender.”
Nesreen Ghonaim wears Nike Legend tights with her abaya, and Nike Air Zoom Pegasus shoes.
THEY RUN THESENike was the first brand to invest in the Middle East’s new running groups. “The JRC and JRC Women are powered by Nike. They provide shoes and shirts for crew leaders,” Nesreen says. That sort of support has made Nike’s Pegasus, Vomero, and React favourites among Saudi runners.
Until 2018, Saudi women could only race out of public view, e.g. at the Hejaz50 trail race outside Jeddah. There, the women feel comfortable without abayas.