Visiting is still not easy, despite recent attempts to open up to the outside world. And even on the inside, it can be hard to scratch beneath the country’s surface: life in the Kingdom is family-orientated and intensely private.
Despite its image, though, normal Saudis have always had more fun and enjoyed a more liberal lifestyle than outsiders assume. It’s just a question of looking in the right places: behind compound gates and frosted glass.
Dozens of royal decrees such as allowing women to drive and reigning in the country’s notorious religious police have been announced in recent months.
The reforms are being implemented from the top down but, in fact, it is decades of work by ordinary women, chipping away at convention bit by bit, that has brought the Kingdom to the tipping point of change it is reaching now.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s relaxed Red Sea city, one woman who has witnessed the rules loosen throughout her life – and led much of the charge herself – is 41-year-old Halah al Hamrani, who fights for women’s right to exercise.
Born to a Saudi father and American mother, al Hamrani grew up encouraged by her parents to take part in any sports she wanted: gymnastics, football, martial arts – inside the residential compounds occupied by rich ex-patriots working in the oil industry. She had gained a black belt in jujitsu by the age of 16.
“I was bought up to believe girls could do anything,” she says. “Sports are especially important I think because we haven’t exactly broken that gender divide in the West yet either. Growing up, I was very lucky to have parents like that.”
After graduating from university in California, al Hamrani returned to Jeddah feeling directionless, but eventually directed her boxing talent into giving lessons to female friends from a spare room at home.
That grew into friends of friends and then whole classes – until she eventually leased the ground floor of an apartment building as her own women-only gym, one of the only ones of its kind in the country.
Al Hamrani’s studio is called FlagBoxing. Its mottis, “Fight like a girl”.
“Being able to defend yourself is good for you mentally as well as physically,” she says. “It’s incredibly empowering. When women come here, I want them to feel that. Sometimes it’s for the first time in their lives.”
FlagBoxing has a fairly active social media presence but it’s technically unlicensed: there’s no sign outside the door, and women interested in classes have to call al Hamrani to get the address.
It holds calisthenics, kickboxing, muy thai and Crossfit classes, focusing on strength and conditioning. Al Hamrani has trained up two other instructors herself since 2016 and estimates there are now around 150 regular visitors.
On the day The Independent visits, four young women show up for a kickboxing basics class.
The first to arrive is aged 22 but seems much younger. It is her second visit to FlagBoxing.
She is dropped off by her mother, who hangs around to make sure her daughter is OK. In the end, al Hamrani has to shoo the woman away, anxious to keep the front door closed from prying eyes.
“Does your mother go everywhere with you?” she says to her student. “If I ever manage to get a job she will probably come to that too,” she replies.
Shoving her abaya into a locker reveals she is very overweight – like 68 percent of the country. She puts on a bright orange headband which matches her trainers, over her curly hair and fiddles on her phone.
When the four she is expecting to arrive al Hamrani turns up the pop music so loud she has to shout instructions over it.
She patiently explains the fundamentals of the sport – the distance there should be between your fists and your face, how to avoid tripping over your feet when sparring.
The women seem to need it. They struggle with coordination and balance as well as asserting the power needed to throw a real punch.
Al Hamrani is a fierce teacher – she makes one student repeat the same pattern of movements until she gets it just right. But she is ready with praise, too.
“They thrive off it. I see such huge differences in students when they come here very quickly ... they go home changed women. Eventually, it’s how they carry themselves, how they talk. Their confidence grows,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like a therapist.”
Al Hamrani has also grown bolder in recent years: since feeling like the time was right to open her underground studio, her public profile has steadily been growing. In 2016 prominent princess Reema bint Bandar was appointed as the head of a new department for women at the General Authority for Sports.
She is making sure physical education is compulsory for girls at school and dreams of creating Saudi female athletes that can compete internationally.
Al Hamrani is helping to help shape the new curriculum and hopes to roll out other female gyms across the country.
But she worries, like many Saudis, that reforms that have been implemented almost overnight could just as easily be taken away.
“All it could take is one accident or misstep for the whole initiative to get shut down,” she says. “The same thing happened with massage parlors after a princess injured her back there. So I’m keeping this place unregistered for now.”
Shaima, 29, is obviously the most experienced student in class today. Al Hamrani instructs her to shadow box while she gives more attention to the others.
“This place keeps me sane,” says Shaima. “I would go crazy without this release. And I want to be able to visit Riyadh and do exercise there, too.”
“This place is good for me,” Al Hamrani says. “I’ve become more empathetic seeing how hard it is for some students to undo everything they’ve been taught their whole lives in order to assert themselves.
“We are all going through a huge period of change. I won’t be done with this work until I send someone to the Olympics.”
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