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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Women’s ‘sports clubs’ face the ax

Najah Alosaimi, Arab News
RIYADH: The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs will close women’s unlicensed sports clubs in the Kingdom unless they are operated by medical organizations.

Hamad Al-Omar, the ministry spokesman, said the present women’s independent sports clubs do not have commercial registration for the provision of sport and health services.

The General Presidency of Sport and Youth Welfare, which provides licenses to men’s sports clubs, does not do the same for women’s clubs. No other government department has the authority to give licenses to establish women’s clubs. This is a major factor that has led to the emergence of unlicensed sports clubs for women.

According to Saleh bin Nasir, deputy director in the Presidency, a request has been submitted to the appropriate authorities asking for permission to establish women’s clubs. “We are waiting for a decision from the authorities,” he said.

The lack of a licensing authority for women’s sports clubs has forced investors either to abandon their project or find ways to circumvent the rules.

Two years ago, businessman Bader Al-Shibani wanted to open a women’s sports club along with the one he runs for men in Jeddah. “I ran into a stone wall at every turn. Every department I visited denied that they had the authority to give permission to establish a women’s club,” he said, adding, “In the end, I just abandoned the project.”

Meanwhile, others get around the difficulty by deciding to register their businesses as “beauty salons” and then provide — in addition to beauty services — a full complement of fitness, health and weight-loss programs.

Attorney and community activist Abdulaziz Al-Qasim thinks that every department has preferred to turn a blind eye to the matter of sports clubs for women in order to avoid social fuss and “random fatwas, which would most likely appear once women’s sports are recognized.”

“It’s clear that one department is now taking the decision to put an end to the increasing number of unlicensed clubs, which other departments have created by their refusal to give them approval instead of coordinating with one another,” he said.

The ministry began implementing its decision in Jeddah by taking action against two women’s clubs from 15 unlicensed ones and one in Dammam, according to Al-Madinah newspaper.

Raja’a is a supervisor in one of the clubs, which is officially listed as a beauty salon but provides swimming lessons, sauna, massage and a fitness gym. She said that a female inspector from the municipality had asked them to move the fitness facilities away from the salon.

“Since our sports club receives about 150 visitors every day, we decided to rent another location and open a natural treatment clinic,” Raja’a said.

Raja’a’s case illustrates how business owners can still get around the rule and open sports clubs described as natural treatment clinics.

Saudi social worker Bolger Eman Al-Nafjan, sees this reaction as “natural,” especially when the rules obstruct their work instead of facilitating it.

She supports the ministry’s decision to close unauthorized women’s clubs, but added that such steps should be taken only after clarifying which department is responsible for licensing the clubs.

Some Saudis believe that there is a lack of enthusiasm for allowing sports clubs for women or allowing them to operate officially in the Kingdom. Perhaps, they said, the religious scholars’ antipathy to women’s sports further complicates the issue.

The ministry’s decision coincides with a recent statement by a Saudi scholar describing women who participate in sport as “shameless.” On his official website Abdulrahman Al-Barak, the scholar, wrote about the consequences of opening women’s sports clubs, saying the clubs would encourage women all over the Kingdom to leave their homes.

Similarly, in an interview with Al-Eqtisadiah television last year, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh said: “Women should be housewives; there is no need for them to engage in sports. Such practices don’t serve society.”

Halimah Muzaffar, a Saudi writer who highlights the importance of women’s sports in her columns, said sport should not be regulated. “It’s like any other natural activity that every human being — regardless of their sex — should pursue in accordance with our Islamic values.”

The ministry’s decision was greeted with disappointment by many sports club directors and clients. They said that the decision would impact their businesses as well as the new culture among women for staying fit through sports.

Leena Hamamy, director of a fitness center at Al-Khalidia Towers, believes that the lack of licensed clubs is the direct result of poor services in the existing clubs. “Our visa applications for bringing qualified trainers are rejected because women’s clubs are not listed to operate,” she said.

Leena said she could not understand the need for a campaign to close women’s clubs which help women stay healthy while shisha cafés are all over the country. “Clubs here are operated by women and for women and we only offer activities that coincide with our values, including strict regulations on dress code.”

Fitness trainer So’ad Katab said Saudi society had an urgent need to increase the number of women’s clubs “because as kids, women were prevented from practicing sport at school and when they grow up they don’t have a place to watch their health and socialize.” She added that many women come to her clubs on doctor’s advice.

The new regulation has not yet been applied to any club in Riyadh. Eight months ago Bodoor Al-Naemy, 34, joined an expensive club in Riyadh to exercise. “Working out with a group motivates me,” she said, adding that closing women’s clubs would frustrate many because “health and fitness clubs in medical centers have high subscription fees compared to private ones.”

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