RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Joseph Heller would have smiled. It’s another absurd predicament.
Government officials have begun notifying female-only sports clubs that they must shut down because they don’t have licenses, according to Saudi press reports.

And they don’t have licenses because ... ?

That’s right! No government department is authorized to issue licenses for female-only sports clubs.

The catch-22 situation is another illustration of the barriers placed in the way of Saudi women who want to exercise and participate in sports. Their opportunities to do so are extremely limited because the prevailing view among the country’s influential religious leadership is that it is “un-Islamic” for females to be involved in athletic activities.

This bias against exercising women remains despite the medical community’s warnings about rapidly rising rates of obesity and diabetes among Saudi youth.

"The idea of female fitness is non-existent within our government," Fouziah Alouni, a prominent women's rights campaigner, told Reuters. "Depriving women of this is yet another way of marginalizing them.”

The deprivation starts early. Government schools for girls do not offer physical education classes as part of the curriculum. There are no official sports teams at state-run women’s universities. Females do not ride bicycles in public, swim in pools outside their homes or participate in sports tournaments.

They also are not allowed in public stadiums when Saudi’s beloved soccer teams play.

Last year, when King Saud University in Riyadh announced that it would sponsor an all-female walking marathon on campus to promote health awareness, the country’s most senior religious official, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Alsheikh, ordered the university president to cancel the event.

Also, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that has never had women in its official Olympic teams. Last year, the kingdom was permitted to send five all-male teams to Beijing although the Olympic charter states that “any form of discrimination” is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

Clerical opposition to women doing sports does not stem from Islam. Rather, it arises out of cultural attitudes long discredited in most other societies. Some clerics have Victorian-era ideas that such activities are “unfeminine.” Others display ignorance about the necessity of exercise to maintain health. And some have suggested that exerting themselves in sports would be detrimental to women’s honor.

“Women need to have their dignity protected,” Sheikh Abdullah Al Manee, a member of the government-appointed Council of Senior Ulema, or religious scholars, told the Saudi Gazette.

“Sports such as football and basketball require a lot of movement which may cause young women to lose their virginity, which can cause them numerous problems later on.”

Another Islamic scholar and blogger, Muhammed Al Habdan, wrote that physical education at girls’ schools would require them to disrobe. In addition, it might lead to “the loss of the shyness that is characteristic of Muslim girls,” and “the eventual masculinization of women” who will lose “their innate female inclinations.”

Al Habdan also suggested that such classes might contribute “to the rising phenomenon of young women admiring one another lustfully in girls' schools — especially since young women will begin to see one another's svelte physiques.”

Physical education classes, he added, would be the start of “a slippery slope” with Saudi Arabia “following in the footsteps of Western countries ... by allowing women additional freedoms in sports. Soon the state will inaugurate colleges dedicated to female sports, then they will hold national championships. And to think that this brouhaha all began because women needed exercise and it just spiraled out of control.”

Al Habdan does not hold a government position but his religious advice is followed by a significant segment of Saudi society.

Nevertheless, young women increasingly see the value, both aesthetic and medical, in regular exercise and sports. In recent years, they have begun organizing informal soccer, basketball and volleyball teams that play on private properties — sometimes at weekend homes in the desert outskirts of Riyadh, sometimes in private school stadiums.

These semi-clandestine teams are most overt in Jeddah, the Red Sea port that is the country’s most liberal city.

Lina Al Maeena, 30, is founder of Jeddah United basketball team whose players are mostly students and housewives. She said in an interview that she had seen “drastic changes” in the mental health of women who had come to play regularly — many of them in headscarves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts.

She recalled how one girl who was suffering from anorexia “just blossomed” and “is one of our most amazing players.” Other girls who were on antidepressants no longer needed them because “their seratonin levels just went up naturally” during dribbling and shooting on the court, Al Maeena said.

“People think sport is only for losing weight,” said Lamis Darwish, a tall, slender 20-something who exercises several days a week at Impact, an all-women’s gym attached to a downtown Riyadh medical facility.

But Darwish says she also does it for her mental health. “It makes me happy, all the bad energy comes out,” she said.

Sports clubs like Impact are licensed because they are associated with hospitals or medical centers. But these facilities are scarce, and usually too expensive for most young women.

In an effort to meet the growing demand for women’s exercise facilities, some entrepreneurs have opened establishments that they describe to licensing authorities as “beauty salons,” or “natural treatment centers” because they know that they cannot get licensed as all-female gym.

These facilities are the ones now being threatened with closure because they are not properly “licensed.” And yet, officials admit, no government department — including the one that issues licenses for men’s gyms — is authorized to license women’s gyms.

After this was recently highlighted in the press, some members of the Shura Council, the state-appointed advisory body, expressed dismay that their recommendation several years ago to open all-female exercising facilities had not been implemented and they urged the government to do so.

But cleric Al Manee from the Council of Senior Ulema told the Saudi Gazette that the “decision on whether to permit sports clubs for women requires a ruling” from the Council.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Saudi Arabia:

Religious police feel the heat

Child marriage case shows deep splits in Saudi society

Bringing poetry to reality TV


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