Saudis clamp down on women's gyms

Many women-only sports clubs and gyms in Saudi Arabia face closure under a government clampdown on unlicensed premises, Saudi media have reported.
Women's gyms have become popular in the ultra-conservative Muslim country where the sexes are heavily segregated.
But only clubs linked to medical groups can get licenses and others will be closed, the Arab News newspaper said.
Saudi women were reported to have launched an online campaign in protest called Let Her Get Fat.
Government departments are not allowed to issue licenses for commercial gyms and sports clubs for women, unlike facilities for men, the newspaper reported.
Beauty salons
It quoted club manager Bader al-Shibani, who tried 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.
Many clubs are registered as beauty salons, and offer fitness facilities and even exercise classes in addition, the newspaper said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs told the newspaper that commercial clubs do not have registration for the provision of sport and health services.
"It's clear that one department is now taking the decision to put an end to the increasing number of unlicensed clubs," lawyer and community activist Abdulaziz al-Qasim told Arab News.
A group of women launched an internet campaign in protest against the move, saying facilities linked to medical clinics were too expensive, and their health would suffer as a result of the closures.
Women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, must wear a head-to-toe cloak when out in public and must obtain permission from a male relative to work, travel, study or marry.


Muslim Woman Finds Allah in Yoga

Lisa Siregar
Pujiastuti Sindhu, founder of the Yoga Leaf Center in Bandung, West Java Province, has been studying the discipline since she suffered a panic attack in 1996 at the age of 18.
“I find it true when people say it’s our mind which destroys us the most. Yoga calms my mind. I can concentrate and it feels comfortable to talk,” the now 31-year-old said. “I was even too shy to speak in public.”
As a Muslim, however, Puji is contravening a religious ruling in order to reach her inner peace. In January 2009, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that made yoga that contains Hindu rituals such as chanting haram, or forbidden in Islam.
Indonesian Muslims are free to practice the discipline purely for health reasons but engaging in the Hindu chants can “weaken their Islamic faith,” according to Umar Shihab, a chairman of the MUI. Puji said it was not for her to decide whether the fatwa was right or wrong.
She tends to seek universal values, rather than differences, between the two religions. The spiritual experience of connecting with God through yoga should not be simply interpreted as a Hindu ritual, she said.
“Yoga is not a sport, it’s a knowledge.In general, yoga means unification between body, mind, spirit and God. It was developed about 5,000 years ago in the Himalayan mountains of north India, and was indeed created for spiritual purposes.”
Puji includes chanting when she practices yoga as she does not believe it undermines her faith in Allah. However, she strongly suggests that her students not do anything that might disturb their own faith.
“If one’s faith is disturbed by doing yoga, then don’t do it,” she said. “As for me, I believe that God in all religions is the same.”
Puji said that “Om Shanti,” the highest chant in yoga, is inseparable from the Hindu culture from where it came.
“Shanti means peace, and Om is indefinable, the highest one with no name,” Puji said. “For me, who else can that be [other than Allah]?
”When Puji first learned about yoga, in the late 1990s, it was not yet popular in Indonesia. She had tried popular breathing techniques before first learning about yoga from a book, “Yoga, Meaning, Value and Practice” by Phulgenda Sinha. She practiced yoga following the book for two years, then, in 1998, found a yoga master in Bandung, a Chinese-Indonesian named Yoga Murti. One of the first teachers of yoga in Indonesia, Murti has now taught the discipline for 50 years.
Puji says yoga has developed into nine different types for different purposes, from the gentle technique to more dynamic ones. Gentle yoga emphasizes breathing practice while dynamic yoga has fast movements. Puji focuses on gentle hatha yoga.“The trick with yoga is to find a suitable type for you,” she said.Some people find yoga boring and say it makes them sleepy, she said, but that is probably because they are energetic.
“If you are an energetic person, you might be interested in bikram yoga [also known as hot yoga], which is very dynamic,” she said.
Puji suggested that anyone new to yoga get as much information as possible about what type would best suit them.
“Yoga is a way to find solitude. If you’re doing it the wrong way, it won’t be beneficial for you.”


First Saudi Women's Team Plays in Amman

By Aline Bannayan, Jordan Times, Amman
Apr. 22--AMMAN -- Jeddah United (JU), the first Saudi women's club basketball team, is in Amman this week on an invitation from Riyadi Club's women's team.
Saudi Arabia and Brunei are the two countries barring women from their Olympic delegations, and women's sports is banned in Saudi public schools and there are no federations that organise women's sport.
Despite this, Lina Al Maeena and her husband set up the Jeddah United Sports Company (JUSC) in 2006, with one of the main aims being the promotion of female sport in the Kingdom, with the eventual hope of producing Olympic-standard athletes.
In an interview with The Jordan Times, JU co-founder Maeena, who is also captain of the team, said she was driven by personal passion having been lucky to have attended a private school where women can play sport. "I believe in it. Sportsmanship teaches values, and being involved in sports was a great investment for me as a teenager and I'm still at it."
The team, which arrived in Amman on Tuesday, kicked off their four-day visit with an informal meeting with Jordan Basketball Federation women's basketball committee chairperson, Taroub Khoury, and national team coach Sirsa Naghaway.
Khoury, who spearheaded the return of former national team players to the arena, and formed a team that has competed in the league, hailed JU's initiative and promotion of sports.
Riyadi Secretary General Fadi Sabbah said JU's mini training camp will include matches against Riyadi and Shabab Urdun as well as visits to religious and historic sites such as Jerash and Petra.
"It is the first time in Jordan for the first Saudi women's basketball team, the experience is beneficial for both sides," Sabbah told The Jordan Times. As they seek more exposure and experience, JU travelled to the UAE in 2007 where they played the American University of Sharjah.
While Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country officially barring women's sports, the government's stance on the issue is not as clear cut as it might seem and observers note only some segments in society oppose it. In a recent interview, The Washington Post quoted Maeena as saying: "The idea of Saudi women playing sports is socially unacceptable to some people. That's the barrier we're trying to break."
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah reshuffled his Cabinet and chose the first-ever woman deputy minister for women's education -- the most senior ever granted to a woman in the Kingdom. The women of Jeddah United exemplify how reform is slowly coming; led by a generation who want the country to modernise in a way consistent with the teachings of Islam.
"We are not asking for something against our culture or our religion," Maeena said, adding that in Muslim countries all over the world, women play sport. "The Muslim religion teaches you to be fit. Caliph Omar Bin Al Khattab, preached that you have to teach your children swimming, archery [and] equestrian," she said, adding that those who oppose it preach a distorted interpretation of religion.
At the Olympics, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Indonesia and Somalia were among Muslim nations that fielded women in their delegations and observers hope possibly London 2012 will see the first ever Saudi women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is now putting increasing pressure on countries banning women to include women in the future. JU and others have an ally in Moroccan Olympic gold medallist Nawal El Moutawakel who last year became the first Muslim woman elected to the IOC executive board. In 1984, Moutawakel became the first woman from a Muslim country to win a gold medal.
Calls to lift the ban on women's sports are coming from many high-profile officials including Saudi Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal Bin Fahd, vice president of youth welfare, the body that sponsors sports events in the country.
On Monday, Prince Nawaf was quoted by Saudi's Al Watan newspaper that starting next academic year, the organisation will permit girls' schools to provide physical education classes. That announcement has given JUSC a big boost.
The JU team, which has Saudis and expatriates on their line-up, has Aramex Jeddah as sponsor of their Amman tour. The club now has about 200 sportspeople -- male and female -- who play sport under its banner. Operations Manager Maali Al Abdali and Maeena note their tournaments have a social message behind them believing that learning through sports is an effective way to teach the youth the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.
The highlight of the tournaments was Saudi Arabia's first ever women's street basketball tournament in which 12 teams participated. Since 2006, they also held a "Back to School Tournament", "Father and Son Tournament", "Drink Milk Tournament" the "Cancer Survivor Tournament" and the "Anti-Smoking Sports Day".
And in order to sustain teams, JUSC have age groups in football and basketball where parents attend and are part of the sporting spirit. Laila Mkayes, a Syrian national who played for Lattakia's Hittin Club and the national team, now resides in Jeddah and is coach of JU's U-14 and U-18 girls' teams.
"Everyone is so passionate and enjoys playing. I'm so happy for the kids and to be able to help out," Mkayes said.
In 2008, JU conducted two basketball clinics with the WNBA for coaches and players as part of the Sports United Friendship Basketball Programme. Forty-five players from various teams and 25 coaches of different organisations signed up for the quality training that was run by ex-WNBA players Lynette Woodard and Ruthie Bolton.
To see more of the Jordan Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.jordantimes.com/.


Pakistani girls come to US with goal clearly in sight

Washington - A group of 10 Pakistani girls and young women managed to convince their parents that it would be a good idea to come to the United States to play football. The team members, between the ages of 12 and 21, are in Washington with three coaches through a State Department programme, to hone their football skills - training for a sport that has a scanty audience and little support back home.
All members of the Young Rising Stars Female Football Club (YRS), they battle with ease the deep ambivalence in conservative Muslim society about girls playing sport.
“I started playing late - when I was 17 and initially thought I was too old to be called a ‘young rising star.’ Now I just love it - so inspiring,” said team captain Sana Mahmood, 19, who studies social sciences at Bahria University in Islamabad.
“American girls start playing at 3 to 5 years and have such an advantage over us,” Mahmood told dpa, the German news agency. “We lack technical skills, have no professional facilities - that is very disappointing about my country.”
YRS has a lot to be proud of, winning the first All-Pakistan Inter-Club Women’s Football Tournament in August 2008.
“The sports infrastructure (in the United States) is fantastic. Boys support girls playing football. In Pakistan, no one comes to watch our matches, and if the men come, they only stare,” Mahmood said.
Football is seen as a men’s game in Pakistan, but things are slowly changing, according to Ghiasuddin Baloch, the team’s manager and former national footballer. Cricket and field hockey are more popular, and Pakistan’s men’s national team is ranked 177th in the latest FIFA world rankings.
“I was very keen to bring young girls into the sport, to change their lives. Sports is empowering. But there was lots of resistance from parents and school principals,” Baloch said.
“I was criticized for encouraging girls to come out and play. Principals said they didn’t want girls running around in half-sleeved shirts and shorts. Some parents were worried their daughters wouldn’t get married as they would be considered too masculine.”
Experiencing football in the United States is a big step forward for the girls, Baloch said. In September 2005, when Pakistani women played their first-ever football championship, they had to wear long- sleeved jerseys and baggy trousers. The only men allowed into the stadium were the male coaches.
Until 2004, there was no women’s football in Pakistan, but despite the late start and cultural and social barriers, FIFA cited as a major achievement that the 2005 women’s national finals were aired live on national TV.
Bushra Jamali, 17, said nonchalantly that she barged onto the field at 5 years old, much before her other teammates started.
“I was a tomboy in school and pushed my way into the team, even though I was the only girl,” she said. “My father encourages me, but not my mother. I’m slowly convincing her with my hard work.”
To prove that she can do it all, Jamali gets up before 5 am each day, studies until 9 am and then leaves for school. From 3 pm onward she’s at football practice.
While football is her first love, she also plays cricket and basketball and dreams of participating in other sports not accepted in Pakistan.
“It is fascinating to watch figure skating and gymnastics. The opportunities are not present in Pakistan for girls to indulge in these sports,” said Jamali.
In a country where many girls don’t go to school and get married young, the footballers dream of playing internationally.
“I am passionate about it, and I’ll fly with it was much as I can. There is so much to learn in the US,” Mahmood said.
She is captain and big sister combined.
“We are like a big family who have ventured across the Atlantic alone,” Mahmood said. “Some girls have never stepped outside Pakistan and feel a little uncomfortable, but on the field everything is forgotten.”
The youngest player, Sahar Zaman, 12, said she’s the only girl among six brothers and names David Beckham and Roberto Carlos as her heroes.
While most of the girls appreciate the world’s top male footballers, their all-time favourite is Marta - Brazilian football star Marta Vieira da Silva, best known by a single name as are Brazil’s male greats Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
“Marta was born to play football,” Mahmood said. “I want to be like her.” (dpa)