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'As proud modest Muslim Saudi women, we want to champion being strong inside and out'

Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi set up the first Women’s Sports Initiative at Saudi universities to help break the taboo of females taking part in physical activity in the kingdom, she tells MEMO what inspired her
Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi set up the first Women’s Sports Initiative at Saudi universities [Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi]

Female participation in sports has long been a controversial issue in Saudi where women cannot exercise with men and there are no public sports facilities for women as authorities viewed sport for females as immodest.

Saudi Arabia didn't send any women to the Olympics until 2012.

However, over the last five years, as part of the country's Vision 2030 programme, the number of women in sports has more than doubled.

However, as remarkable as this sounds, Saudi Arabia needs a stronger drive to encourage more female participation in sports and develop a more inclusive sports environment in the country, according to Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi, an assistant professor teaching Public Health in the Community Health Science Department at King Saud University's (KSU) Applied Medical Science College.

This is despite Saudi Arabia's recently announcing the creation of its first women's football league, just two years after female spectators were allowed into football matches around the country. The league was launched last year but has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

READ: 'Sexist' Saudi job ad triggers controversy

Deemed to be a pioneer of women's sport in her country, AlMarzooqi is an example of a Saudi woman who has risen to the top of sports governance.

She says investing in women's participation in sport has a key role to play in developing a cycle of positive social and economic outcomes.

AlMarzooqi also currently serves as the head of the Women's Sports Development Committee at the Saudi Universities Sports Federation, Ministry of Education, in addition to working as Vice Dean Assistance for Development and Quality in the College of Sport Sciences and Physical Activity at KSU.

In 2018, she founded KSU Movement Initiative for a Healthy and Active Campus, the first women's sports initiative at a Saudi university.

Sports events in Saudi as part of a drive to get women active [KSU Movement]

"We cannot just blame the lack of motivation of women here in Saudi Arabia, that would be very wrong," she reveals. "There are many more barriers which need to be seen in a holistic approach – the social norms of the person's society and environment play a big role as well as the policies which play a big, practical role in creating physical barriers and the inactivity of Saudi women in health and fitness."

With a lot of the reform groundwork in place, what needs to happen next is a public awareness drive, she adds. "This is why I started KSU Movement Initiative for a Healthy and Active Campus because I wanted to help overcome such limits and barriers. Many of us cannot run outdoors as a woman, not even near our own house or neighbourhood."

"This challenge can be an opportunity for us to use the women [only] campus as a great place to be active outdoors."

Women in Saudi Arabia are still subject to a myriad of restrictions on everyday life as they must observe strict rules on gender segregation and marriage.

The consultant also noted the poor street planning in the country, which she says, never considered setting out space for those who need to or prefer to walk along the pavements.

"Riyadh is not for pedestrians – cars only. You may find females going by themselves, but they have to take the car as the streets here are so thin and disconnected," explains AlMarzooqi.

READ: In first-ever, female academic chairs Saudi Shura Council meeting

This, she adds, contrasts her experiences in Australia, where she completed her PhD in Medicine, Physical Activity Behavior at the University of Adelaide, the world's eighth healthiest place to live.

Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi [Dr Mezna AlMarzooqi]

AlMarzooqi says her parents encouraged her to take part in sports and remain active. She qualified as a Hatha Yoga Teacher in India and trained with the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"Growing up, I was very lucky to have parents like that and have the privilege to study abroad to engage with different cultures and understand society's impact of community engagement, as well as community health and wellbeing," she says. "My life as an Australian citizen consisted of running long and short distances from my apartment to the park and most places."

"In Saudi at the time, there were no fitness clubs that were opened yet – not even gyms for women. Even though there are a few opened now, membership for women is still very expensive compared to men."

The price of membership to fitness clubs in the kingdom ranges from 900 riyals ($240) to 4,000 riyals ($1,066) per month.

A survey by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics published in 2018, showed that around 91 per cent of Saudi females did not practice any sporting activity.

According to the survey, 21.7 per cent of females said that a lack of facilities near their residence was why they did not exercise, compared to 9.6 per cent of males.

"I was so lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad and see the difference in lifestyles, I learnt how to live a much healthier and active one, and I wanted the same for my sisters here in Saudi Arabia," says AlMarzooqi.

Sports events in Saudi as part of a drive to get women active [KSU Movement]

Sports events in Saudi as part of a drive to get women active [KSU Movement]

"It was upon my return I noticed we have a new campus for females only which is gated and very big and even shaded from the sun. So I utilised the area to take my 10-15k runs which was a risk I was taking, as I also chose to wear my leggings which no one had done before, but it was a habit that worked out great because of space and segregation."

After expressing interest in opening a sports club for women, she was encouraged by her head of department who also began joining her runs, to write a letter to the university governing body proposing a women's only health club with a map outlining areas suitable for fitness training.

"In 2018, we finally opened the first Women's Sports Initiative at Saudi Universities, and it is open to all women," notes AlMarzooqi.

"We are proud of being Muslim women wearing an abaya and being modest, and we are proud of our cultures and traditions, but we also want to proudly champion the importance of women's health and fitness, to be strong inside, and out."

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