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.

Runner's World South Africa - - CONTENTS - BY MICHELLE HAMIL­TON

For decades, women’s sports were ef­fec­tively banned in Saudi Ara­bia. But change is com­ing...


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


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.

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