With renewed support from their Kingdom, women are breaking down gender stereotypes in sport and fitness.
At Jeddah’s Pulse Studio, aerial silks artist Ghalia Khoja spends a great deal of time dangling above the floor, a limb casually twisted with the fabric sling that holds her body aloft. As an aerial instructor at one of Saudi’s first female-only studios greenlit in 2018, she’s enthused about teaching other women how to twist, stretch, and invert. Part circus skill, part muscle-toning workout, aerial silks has only recently developed from a Cirque du Soleil-style crowd-pleaser to an impressive fitness class. Using soft slings fixed to the ceiling, participants wrap the fabric around limbs and torso, using their body weight to shift their balance and manipulating the sling’s lengths to support graceful movements floating about the floor. Khoja teaches aerial abs classes, destabilizing the core and working the stomach muscles, as well as an aerial burn class that combines Pilates, barre, and yoga moves while suspended in the air, and a stretch class that offers space to breathe while releasing tired muscles, and decompressing the spine. While the gravity-defying poses may look intimidating, particularly for first-timers, Khoja says that a female-only, judgement-free zone helps convince even the most nervous to lose their footing. “Being brave comes with practice and time, but modifications are always available,” she reassures. The female-only studio has made class uptake more successful. “We live in a conservative community, where talking about personal issues or things you don’t like about your body is quite sensitive,” shares Khoja. As for whether Saudi women should feel restricted from trying something like aerial sports? Not at all, says Khoja, emphasizing that her compatriots have proven themselves to be capable of pushing out of their comfort zones. “It doesn’t take a nationality to be creative or strong, it only takes passion.”
The first Saudi woman to earn her license for speedbike circuit racing, Dania Akeel, was drawn to speed since she could walk. Her first participation in a racing season was at the Ducati Cup during the 2019/2020 season of the UAE National Sportsbike Super Series, where she was named Rookie of the Year. But after an accident on the track, Akeel paused her high-octane lifestyle to reassess her approach to high-speed racing. “The accident heightened the respect I have for the dangers involved in this type of sport. I always accepted the risks, but they felt far away,” she reflects. Following downtime, during which she penned a book on her life experiences, Akeel shifted her passion for motorsports into the next gear, moving into off-road racing. “Where track racing answers my call for speed, precision, and focus, off-road racing speaks more to the nature lover in me. Enjoying the views as I cross the terrain is a feeling I could not gain from the track.” A pioneer for Saudi women, Akeel affirms, “I could not have achieved any of this without the support of the Ministry of Sports and the Saudi Motorsport Federation. If anything, being a woman has been an advantage in my attaining support for the races. The obstacles I faced were learning to overcome my own fears of moving beyond a typical stereotype and into a space that is not historically occupied by many women.” Her next goal – competing under the Saudi flag in the Dakar 2022 off-roading rally – will be yet another first for KSA female sports.
When Rasha Alkhamis couldn’t find a sufficient space for Saudi women interested in boxing, she took it upon herself to kickstart that process. After training in the sport while studying in the US, she was eager to pick up the sport again, with the expectation that she would be able to continue her training and development. “Boxing taught me about self-confidence, resilience, and empowerment,” she shares. Finding few options for combat sports for women in the Kingdom, a chance encounter in 2018 with the president of the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation led to Alkhamis transforming herself from amateur athlete to the country’s first accredited boxing coach in a few months of intensive training. The following year, she was elected a board member for the Saudi and Asian Boxing Federations, before adding a place on the Saudi Olympic Women’s Committee to her list of accomplishments.
While Alkhamis anticipated opposition, she experienced no backlash. “There was a perception that I was going to encounter a lot of resistance from those who think Saudi women shouldn’t be engaging in combat sports. But my journey has been positive and filled with opportunities as well as encouragement to continue in the sports industry and be part of a bigger vision taking place in Saudi Arabia.” Putting her accreditation to work, Alkhamis launched several coaching programs, with 250 female students signing up to each course. “My goal is to play a major role in paving the way for future women athletes and to use my skills as a coach to inspire other women while also becoming influential in growing the sport for women in Saudi Arabia,” explains Alkhamis. “It is in the interest of us all – the fans, the families, and every girl and woman who has been able to fully realize her dreams through athletic participation.”
Weightlifter and trainer
Jeddah-based trainer Mai Kholief has always considered herself to be active. From weightlifting at university to earning her first personal training certification in 2014 and launching her fitness studio, MFIT, she’s shrugged off social norms to pursue sports that make her feel strong. “There’s something exciting yet humbling about picking up stuff that’s two to three times your body weight,” she says. Her group training classes combine strength training with conditioning to help introduce studio members to the benefit of lifting heavy. “I don’t know who started the stigma that weightlifting makes women bulky. Our bodies are not capable of becoming bulky in a supernatural way,” she explains. “Weightlifting will help you reach your goals of staying fit, strong, and toned.” Opting for heavy weights helps increase overall strength and bone density, decreases the risk of injury, promotes fat loss, and regulates blood pressure. The mental health benefits are also underrated, explains the studio owner. “For me, weightlifting is stress relieving because it helps me stay focused on my movements and breathing at the same time. I feel strong and confident after my sessions and it instantly puts me in a good mood.”
Since launching MFIT in 2016, Kholief has seen a rise in interest in lifting, with Saudi women adjusting to the idea – but it hasn’t been without its challenges. “There will always be resistance to anything new and to anyone trying to break stereotypes,” she explains. Kholief says she understands the hesitation Saudi women have when it comes to loading up their bench press, saying the biggest obstacle she had when starting out was her own lack of confidence. “I was petrified of failing a squat or an Olympic lift, getting injured and subsequently not achieving my goals,” she shares. She recommends that women wanting to try a new weights routine should start slowly and gradually work up their reps and weights at their own pace. Don’t hesitate out of fear when it comes to making that first move. “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone. Take risks, don’t be afraid, and don’t worry about what people say,” she recommends.
Originally published in the June 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia