Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Females & Fitness

Published March 30, 2010 - Muscat Daily
Before I elaborate any further, I hope all men reading this column at present are thanking their lucky stars and counting their blessings for being able to simply throw on a pair of shorts and go for a jog or play soccer everyday barefoot on the beach at sunset. Women can only dream of being so privileged.
If I were to describe the history of female physical activity in Dhofar it would be something like the following.

Thirty to forty years ago women worked hard in their homes or mountain huts, or with their animals. They were active, fit and strong. Then the first change came with the sudden introduction of the fashion of having a male cook from India in each house. The next step came with the introduction, around twenty five years ago, of Asian housemaids and lives were transformed forever. After the housemaids, satellite dish television was soon to follow, and women started spending too many hours in front of their magic boxes, slowly putting on the pounds.

 Ten years ago, after a frightening increase in obesity among women, several of the clever ones started walking (in full veil) during the evenings to try and lose some weight and stay healthy. They were limited to walking along the airport road or exercising in their own bedrooms because the idea of a young woman working out anywhere else was still unspeakable. Five years ago a new trend was introduced: all-female health clubs. Very few actually worked out at these clubs because the idea of shedding the abaya and headscarf in a public place and doing pushups with other women was simply too weird for most women, let alone the male members of their families. Finally, over the past year or so, enrollment at local health clubs has reached the point where some clubs are running four or five aerobics classes a day to accommodate all the eager women who want to work out, and new clubs are opening regularly.
After visiting one of the more popular health clubs at the centre of town with one of my friends recently, I was pleasantly surprised. At the front of the building was a reception area where one of the club's employees stood guard to ensure no male accidentally entered the all-female territory. At the back were changing rooms as well as a spacious room lined with treadmills and every possible exercise machine you can imagine. Finally the main attraction was the huge workout room lined with mirrors from floor to ceiling. There were over 20 women warming up in their sweatpants and t-shirts, getting ready to dive into an intense session of aerobics.

The instructor switched on a rather amusing workout CD made up of a mixture of Western techno-remixes and Middle Eastern belly dancing music. The women got to work following instructions from their tough trainer. They worked their muscles, faithfully did their pushups, and even did a little weightlifting, for a whole hour without a break. After the class the women filed into the changing rooms and put on their layers of black, getting ready to leave. Once they were out of the building, you would never have been able to guess where they'd been unless you had spotted the Nike sneakers under the abayas. I was impressed.
Despite being banned in places like Saudi Arabia, all-female health clubs are certainly one of the more positive trends I've noticed in Salalah lately. Although the idea still raises eyebrows quite often, it's not as taboo as before. The reservations that some people have about all-female health clubs can be rather amusing sometimes! Please rest assured that these are not 'shady' places and there are no suspicious activities going on behind the closed doors!
Overall, I can definitely say people in Salalah are becoming more health conscious for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason is a rapid increase in obesity, heart problems, and diabetes among locals. Furthermore, instead of 'fattening the bride' for weddings, men now find slimmer women more attractive. Times are changing … for the better! Women are more confident, healthy, and energetic. These health clubs are simply places where women can shed the layers of black and do some real exercise with other like-minded females. I salute all the weight-lifting, muscle crunching, mat-working women who aren't afraid of being healthy. Now if we could only work on their eating habits....


  1. Hi susan

    A gr8 post .. i always look out for your column in muscat daily . keep up the the good work

  2. Dear Susan, I just found out about your column and I absolutely LOVE it!!! I feel like suddenly drawn back to the wonderful lands of the desert, as if I was in midst of all the wedding preparations and surrounded by tea, coffee and women discussing just the very issues you bring up in your blog. I love it. Congratulations. And it helps me to overcome my nostalgic phases where I just want to take the next plane and fly back and indulge in the Arabian miracles. I would like to put a link on my homepage so that many more people can read your blog. What do you think?
    I am so proud of you!
    What do you think of my article on female fashion in the Arabian Gulf?