In Saudi Arabia, Women's Fitness Boom Defies Normsby
Women-only Saudi gyms expanding to meet growing demand
Conservative culture, licensing pose challenge to industry
With blacked-out windows and a tiny sign, NuYu fitness center in Riyadh looks abandoned from the road. But inside it’s bustling, with Saudi women stripping off black abayas to reveal colorful athletic gear and pedaling furiously in a burlesque-themed spinning studio.
Founded by a daughter of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the gym exemplifies the tensions inherent in women’s fitness in the Arab world’s biggest economy and birthplace of Islam. The growing number of women-only gyms in the kingdom are reporting a booming business, part of a gradual opening of women’s lives as they enter the workforce in greater numbers and are exposed to other cultures through social media and travel.
At the same time, the gyms struggle with licensing and must tiptoe around religious conservatives.
Since opening in 2012, NuYu has spread to three locations with almost 4,000 members and can’t keep up with demand, chief executive Susan Turner said. International chains Gold’s Gym and Curves both have branches for women in the country, and Saudi fitness guru Fatima Batook plans to open 20 women’s spinning studios over the next five years.
“There is a huge market,” said Batook, who also created a line of women’s sportswear, TIMA. “We still need more and more.”
In Saudi Arabia, religious police enforce gender segregation, female unemployment stands at 32.8 percent and there are few social activities outside the family. A 2013 survey found that three quarters of Saudi women pursued little or no physical activity and a third were obese.
Batook used to be overweight herself. She began exercising and trained as a spinning instructor as part of a “personal transformation,” she said. The idea of a Saudi female trainer was so new that students would approach her speaking English, assuming she was a foreigner, she said.
Women’s fitness is still viewed warily by the kingdom’s religious conservatives. Sheikh Abdullah Al Manea, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, told online newspaper Sabq in 2011 that practicing sports endangered women’s honor. Last year, when the Shoura Council, an advisory body, supported the introduction of sports to public schools for girls, religious vigilantes demonstrated against the proposal.
"Some people very much still see it as the forbidden, so we’re very careful with how we market, how we put ourselves out there,” said Turner, a British woman who came to the kingdom to help set up NuYu. The gym stops music during prayer times, while the covered windows and a sign warning men away give women the privacy to shed their headscarves.
“Where we can be respectful we are, but there are always going to be people that might disagree,” Turner said.
With limited encouragement from the government, attitudes are shifting. The health ministry runs a national campaign to raise awareness of healthy food and exercise. In 2012, Saudi Arabia for the first time sent two female athletes to the Olympic games, held in London.
While it’s easy to find a women’s gym in Riyadh today, many operate in legal limbo. The lack of a specific license for female fitness centers is a challenge, gym owners said. NuYu, founded by Princess Sara bint Mohammed Al Saud, is licensed as a women’s center.
"There is not a regulatory body for women’s fitness yet," Turner said. Batook said she is working with the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, which licenses men’s gyms, to develop guidelines for women’s fitness centers.
Some gyms that operate as spas or salons risk running afoul of authorities who previously shut down women’s fitness centers for operating without licenses. But with demand growing, businesses feel safe enough to invest in expansion. Turner said NuYu has “huge growth plans.”
“It’s a challenging environment to have a business,” she said. “But I think from a reward perspective it’s a big boost because you can make a massive difference here."
Fitness centers are increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia partly because they provide a social outlet, said John Hooke-Tappin, event director for this month’s International Sport and Fitness Exhibition in Jeddah. The exhibition has set aside an area exclusively for women this year.
"To be honest, there isn’t much to do here in Riyadh for females," said Aljohara al-Modaimigh, who opened Kore, a women’s gym in the capital, with two sisters and two cousins. "A lot of us studied abroad. You come back and you kind of try to bring the lifestyle with you."
As in the West, many fitness centers seem more like clubs than gyms, with cafes alongside the treadmills. Riyadh’s Spectrum Wellness for Women, with a spa downstairs and a gym upstairs, charges 2,700 riyals ($720) for a three-month membership.
The price excludes low-income Saudis. Because exercising outside is taboo for women except in restricted areas such as Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter, those who cannot afford to join a gym have few options for physical activity.
But even walking is more common than it used to be, said May al-Fadda, a Saudi woman who joined a gym for the first time last month. Wiping off sweat after a workout, al-Fadda, 30, said she came to NuYu after hearing about it from her sister.
Awareness is spreading, with more Saudi women paying attention to weight loss and fitness, she said.
“People are caring about healthy food, the gym,” she said. “I’m an example.”