Saudi ban on women’s sports blamed for rising obesity (Zambarakji)

Angie Zambarakji writes at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

A girl’s school in Saudi Arabia has defied a ban on sport for girls by letting pupils play basketball. This comes comes after Human Rights Watch has claimed that women’s limited access to sport was contributing to rising obesity in the country.

Under the Kingdom’s strict Islamic legal system, girls are not allowed to play sports at state-run schools, although some private girls’ schools have sports programmes. Powerful Saudi clerics have also issued religious rulings against female participation in sports.

Sports minister Prince Nawwaf al-Faisal, who is also the head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee, told Al-Watan recently that the kingdom will not send female athletes to participate in the London Olympics. Like Qatar and Brunei, Saudi Arabia has never had a female athlete compete in the Olympics. However, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from competitive sports in general.

45% of middle-aged Saudi women are obese

There is nothing in the Qur’an that forbids Muslim women from exercising, but in conservative Muslim countries women are often banned from exercising uncovered, and from having physical contact with men.

Besides facing discrimination in schools and competitive sports, Saudi women also encounter obstacles when exercising for their health or playing team sports for fun. In 2009, the kingdom announced a ban on licensing gyms for women, and the government went as far as closing established women’s gyms.

In 2009, Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who sits on the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, said the ‘movement and jumping’ needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens. This might give the appearance that they had lost their virginity.

In Saudi Arabia, women must also have the permission of a male ‘guardian’, usually the closest male relative, to travel, work and have elective surgery. They are also banned from driving. The country’s religious police, the mutawwa’in, often subject women to harassment and physical punishment if they break any of these laws.

These laws, together with cultural and religious expectations, effectively limit women to a sedentary lifestyle – and this has contributed to rising obesity among Saudi women.

Forty-five per cent of middle-aged Saudi women are obese, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Saudi Diabetes and Endocrinology Society. The study showed that a number of factors have contributed to the spread of obesity among Saudis, one of them being the lack of physical activity. The prevalence of obesity among women was found to be far greater than among men.

In February, Human Rights Watch published a report, Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, on the systematic discrimination against women in sport in Saudi Arabia, and the impact this has had on rates of obesity and diabetes, especially among women and girls.

Although Saudi Arabia has signed treaties that recognise the rights of women and girls to physical education, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Human Rights Watch found that in practice women are systematically excluded from sport and exercise.

The report found that while there are plans to improve access to sport in girls’ schools, there are few options for staying fit for women: the few health clubs that have sports or fitness equipment can be prohibitively expensive, while team sports for women are almost non-existent.

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Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Responses | Print |

9 Responses

  1. Sigh. Everytime I point out some awful, totally false and ridiculous talking point about the middle east, the Saudis have to go and prove every ugly stereotype about Arabs and Muslims known to man.

    The House of Saud is a curse on Arabs everywhere. Who knows, maybe one day we will be rid of them. What a cherry on top of the Arab Spring to have ended the line of Wahabist charlatans in the holy land!

  2. Saudi Arabia has strict limits on women’s freedom in violation of various treaties that the government have signed.

    Why doesn’t the US boycott trade with Saudi for such blatant treaty violations? Oil.

    Well, can America hurrying up its replacement of gasoline with battery run motors? Probably not because the oil industry doesn’t want to be replaced by batteries???

    • Then there’s also the issue of very limited U.S. mineral reserves and access to rare earths required for manufacture of all things electronic… which had been once been speculated as an important reason (along with humanitarian intervention, etc) for our interest in Afghanistan.

  3. Do you think it possible that along with the lack of exercise, encroaching of western diet may be equally important in the Saudi women’s rising rate of obesity? I’m asking, I truly don’t know, but – as seen in research of the Pima Indians and diabetes, there’s an awful lot of data supporting the negative consequences of what some of us call the “white man’s diet” .


    • The problem here in Saudi is not the exercise per se, and conflating such with increasing obesity misses the point.

      First, it is *absurd* to restrict exercise programmes, gyms, sports and any other health related activity. The ignorance of those screeching about ‘appearance of lost virginity’ is no different to every culture in history, who restricted women from all manner of freedom using this insane argument. Women always rode horses and camels, and the physical exertion required would have certainly caused broken hymens in a good percentage of women! (And the elder women would have known precisely how to circumvent that potential ‘problem’ on the honeymoon…)

      Second, the heat of the desert lends itself to a sedentary lifestyle no matter what, and thus a tendency towards obesity. Thus, it is even more important to implement sport/health programmes.

      Third, the Western diet has become far too popular with the under 30s, and fast-food is replacing the traditional foods rapidly.

      Finally, the relatively recent phenomenon of sleeping and eating in reverse, particularly at Ramadan, has led to an entire society working well into the night and not beginning work until noon or later, as well as sleeping all day when one is supposed to feel the effects of fasting. The point of it all is being missed when you reverse schedules in order to ‘pig-out’ before sleeping through the day because it’s otherwise too much hardship.

      The first responder is correct, in that the Saudis seem hell bent on managing to undermine progress. It’s hard enough countering the genuine myths, let alone the uneducated religious clerics who are so afraid of women that their solution is to prevent them from being seen, heard and independent. And yes, it is getting worse.

      • TCH,

        Thank you so much for sharing. Personally, my small personal encounters with Arab peoples (I’m lucky in that I live in a very cosmopolitan area) has been greatly positive. The hospitality graciousness and intelligence is generally remarkable, be they Saudi, Lebanese, Copts, et al. The negative middle eastern politics seem so contrary to the personal nature of the people I have met… As an American Indian, though, I readily see some early, evolving parallelisms from our experience, including the spectacle of a subverted Democracy morphing into a different animal altogether. (Not that we don’t still have many important elements in place) – one of those things Democracy is supposed to be FOR is the health and general welfare of ALL the people, yet ostensibly the definition of what is be a good and just King, as well? In our tradtional societies, (Haudenosaunee)- our leadership was selected by the Women, whom noted closely those men whom put their people first, the ones that made sure the poor, aged and disabled were fed first. But we’ve never experienced that with our contemporary political process. We know, as we had gifted functional democracy to the Americans, and though the history there is somewhat marginalized, the early colonists were physically and socially immersed in it – the longest existing democracy on the planet. In fact, think a powerful argument can be made that the enlightenment may have socially been sourced in the early observations of our indigenous governance. I’m pointing this out because the health of the people is clearly reflective of how it is governed, how it CHOOSES to be governed, so while it’s a bit “meta” here, I merely wanted to point out that I believe I understand your points. Didn’t mean to segue into democracy, but it’s certainly sources and informs the underlying public health issues, as well. Clear as mud, I know. Maybe this will help: I’m saying a fake democracy is worse than a Just King.

  4. wives in saudi arabia should go on sex strike as a form of protest and as a way to add to the pressure in the push for reforms.

    what? it worked in liberia.

    In 2003, Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized nonviolence protests that included a sex strike. As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a 14-year civil war and helped bring to power the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.[5]

    link to

  5. These laws, together with cultural and religious expectations, effectively limit women to a sedentary lifestyle – and this has contributed to rising obesity among Saudi women.

    i think depression stemming from being treated as 4th class citizens is also an underlying reason behind unhealthy weight.

  6. a hopeful signal towards moderation?

    Saudi King Abdullah has sacked one of his most hardline advisers, Sheikh Abdelmohsen al-Obeikan.

    Sheikh Obeikan, who was an adviser to the royal cabinet, opposed moves to relax gender segregation.

    The dismissal comes shortly after Sheikh Obeikan attacked plans by “influential people to corrupt Muslim society by trying to change the natural status of women”.

    Saudi officials did not give a reason for Sheikh Obeikan’s departure.

    His recent comments were taken to be an attack on tentative steps towards relaxing some stricter interpretations of Saudi law.

    King Abdullah has promised women the right to vote in future elections, has opened the country’s first co-educational university and introduced measures against domestic violence.

    The head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the “mutawa”, was also replaced in January, with the new head widely seen as more moderate than his predecessor.

    link to

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