Saudis' conservatives discourage exercise to fight fat

May 29, 2006 - 12:28AM

Under their modest flowing robes, two-thirds of Saudi women are too fat.

They can try dieting, but you won't find many in aerobics classes or power-walking along this city's walking trails. And very few of their daughters attend schools that have physical education classes.

There are no laws against women exercising outside their homes, but in this conservative society many are influenced by clerics and Islamic scholars who argue against it.

In Riyadh, hotel gyms and pools are off limits to women. Along the city's walking trails, where the women walk covered in the mandatory black cloaks, they are sometimes harassed by the religious police known as muttawa.

One woman walker, Rana al-Abdullah, said the muttawa ordered her to go back to her car when she was out walking one day and wouldn't leave her alone until she did. She now walks in malls.

Many Saudis say they are baffled by the religious arguments.

At a clinic that treats obesity-related diseases, a booklet left by a writer named Muhammad al-Habdan warned that if girls' schools began physical education, Saudi girls would have to change into workout gear - and good girls should not disrobe outside their homes. Changing in a locker room might cause them to lose the shyness that is the hallmark of good morals, the booklet warned.

It went on to say that the girls might become attracted to each other after seeing their classmates in tight leotards and tops.

Changing such attitudes has become the goal of many health-conscious women who are alarmed about the rising rate of obesity in their country.

About 52 per cent of Saudi Arabia's men and 66 per cent of women are either obese or overweight, according to Saudi press reports. For both sexes, the rate is 18 per cent among adolescents and over 15 per cent in preschoolers.

Health officials blame the plush, oil-fuelled Saudi lifestyle for the expanding waistlines. As Saudis have become richer, they have abandoned fibre-rich meals for fast food and meat-based dishes. They have brought in millions of Asian workers to do manual jobs. And they are addicted to technology that encourages staying at home in front of a computer or the TV.

"We're a very affluent society, so we have the luxury not to have to move," said Yasmin al-Tuwaijri, an epidemiologist who studies the obesity epidemic at a leading Riyadh hospital.

Mindful of the dangers of being overweight, the government is trying to educate its citizens about obesity and the diseases related to it. Saudi newspapers, which are government-guided, carry tips almost daily on healthy eating and exercise. The Health Ministry and a women's charity, Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, are spearheading campaigns to encourage Saudis to start moving.

Last year, during the fasting month of Ramadan, when people tend to put on weight because of the rich meals eaten after daytime fasting, the ministry set up an information centre where Saudis could get health information by phone and fax.

Most of the callers to the "Hello Ramadan" program were women who wanted to learn about diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Yet the efforts are not making Saudis leaner.

"It's because the whole environment doesn't support a change in lifestyle," said al-Tuwaijri.

One of those lifestyle changes is getting more women to work out. But it's not just a matter of persuading them to get off their couches. It's changing a mentality that believes that workouts in schools, gyms or outdoors are an evil that will lead, through giving women more freedoms, to the decline of society.

"The Muslim woman should realise that she is a target for corruption," the pamphleteer al-Habdan wrote in another booklet on why women should not go to fitness clubs.

"There is no faster way to corrupt nations than the emancipation of women - that is getting her out on the street to entice men and ruin their morals," he added.

Several years ago, some members of the appointed Consultative Council, the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a Parliament, raised the issue of physical education in girls' schools.

Those who voted against it pointed out that exercise classes in boys' schools have not had much effect on male obesity, according to press reports. That is the same argument al-Habdan makes in his booklets.

Badria al-Bani, a member of the walking campaign al-Nahda is spearheading, said the group's effort will focus on raising awareness among Saudi men of the importance of exercise in a woman's life.

"The first point many women have raised is this point," she said.

She said the group will suggest that girls' schools dedicate 15 minutes of the lunch break for walking. "Isn't that better for the girls than eating?" she asked.

Some months ago, Abeer Mishkhas, a veteran columnist for the daily Arab News, said she "was basking in the glow of satisfaction" at some of the successes women had made in 2005 when an article caught her eye and mocked her.

It was a Ministry of Education press release that said rumours that girls' schools will have physical education classes soon were baseless and misleading. And it reprimanded newspapers for suggesting the possibility.