By Belinda Goldsmith
RIYADH, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pounding on a cross-trainer in a Riyadh gym, Heelah Abdulaziz is one of many Saudi women hoping the licensing of female-only gyms from next month is another step towards improving the lives of women in the conservative Islamic kingdom.
In one of the world's most gender-segregated countries, women cannot exercise with men and there are no public sports facilities for women as many of the conservative Muslim clerics consider sport for females as immodest.
But gyms for women are being encouraged for the first time due to U.S.-raised Princess Reema bint Bandar who became head of a new women's unit at the General Authority of Sports last year.
Unveiling the licensing last month, Princess Reema said this was about "opening the doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle", sidestepping the sensitive women's rights debate.
A spokeswoman from the Sports Authority told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that licences would be granted from April to boost the sports economy which does not just impact physical activity but also employment and business opportunities.
For Abdulaziz, 39, allowing gyms for women - although they are still banned from competitive sports - made sense with around 44 percent of women classified as obese in Saudi which has some of the world's highest rates of obesity and diabetes.
"We'll get a lot more gyms, they'll compete and get cheaper so more women can come," she said at a NuYu fitness centre dressed in colourful workout gear rather than the head-to-toe black garment women must wear in public, including foreigners.
"I didn't have sport at school but I got interested after having children and wanting to lose weight. I tried to exercise at home," said Abdulaziz, who lost 15 kilos (33 pounds) in a year due to exercising.
Until now the only gyms accessible to women were found in women's centres that would only get licenses if their main purpose was not exercise but as a spa or a retail operation. Any centres found breaching that rule were closed down.
FAST FOOD CULTURE
This left commercially run gyms catering to privately run women's sports teams or middle class women able to pay $200 monthly membership operating in a legal limbo for years.
Susan Turner, chief executive of the NuYu chain set up by the Saudi crown prince's daughter Princess Sara Mohammad Al Saud in 2012 as the kingdom's first chain of female fitness centres, said the licensing will lower costs, fuel expansion and improve standards. NuYu now has 5 centres, set to expand to 8 this year.
But Turner said a major drawback was the ability to get staff locally as sport is not mandatory in girls' schools and physical education is not a career choice for Saudi women.
"At the moment we have to bring Western trainers to Saudi but if we can train local women this will bring costs down and help staff more gyms," Turner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding NuYu planned to set up an academy for this.
"It is amazing that we get women coming in here in their 30s who have never moved their bodies on purpose ... and this is a culture that is very fast food driven."
The licensing for women's gyms comes as changes are slowly emerging for women in Saudi, the only country where women are not allowed to drive, live under supervision of a male guardian, and where gender segregation of non-relatives is enforced.
But all changes - from greater female participation in the workforce to allowing women to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012 - are argued along the lines of benefiting the economy or health, not women's empowerment.
This is in line with the government's Vision 2030 released last year that argues the need for a healthier society and economy more inclusive of women to reduce its reliance on oil - and tiptoes around the conservatives' traditional view of women.
In a break from lifting weights, Rahaf Naasani, 27, said women needed gyms in Saudi Arabia to be healthy and fit.
"There's nowhere to work out outside and the main activity otherwise revolves around food," said Naasani, a mother of six-year twins, who moved to Riyadh from Syria seven years ago.
Human Rights Watch, which has criticised Saudi's refusal to grant women sporting rights, said the gym licences were a "leap forward" but the change would mainly impact an elite group.
"You still have to be wealthy to afford gym membership and a driver to get you there and a male guardian to agree," said Minky Worden, HRW director of global initiatives.
She stressed the need for mandatory sport for girls in schools to make exercise a way of life and career choice.
"This is a missed economic opportunity for Saudi as, rather than rely on foreign gym operators, women should be able to open their own gyms, hire local trainers, and create jobs for women who could be the next generation of entrepreneurs," she said.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith. Editing by Astrid Zweynert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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