STANDFIRST: Action taken to shut down unlicensed, all-women fitness clubs, condemned as 'shameless' by Saudi Arabia's clerics Saudi women could see their private sports clubs and gyms closed down because the government seems likely to agree licensing of the clubs for men only. But news of the likely shutdown came as a government official signalled that women might be allowed to vote in municipal elections, though they would still be barred from running for office.
With the sexes strictly separated in public, the two reports illustrate the slow and fitful nature of the progress made since the octogenarian King Abdullah instigated reforms three years ago.
This year the government appointed its first woman as deputy minister to run a department for female students. But women are still banned from driving and face many other restrictions. They are required to have compulsory guardianship of a male, and Saudi Arabia's brand of Wahhabi Islam forbids the mixing of unrelated members of the opposite sex.
Women's gyms are unlicensed, and so regarded as illegal. The general presidency for sport and youth welfare, which is responsible for men's gyms, has not been allowed, or is not prepared, to regulate clubs for women.
Female fitness fans have complained of a lack of places to exercise outside the home since they cannot use the men's clubs. One businessman, Bader Al-Shibani, said that he had wanted to open a women's sports club along with the one he ran for men in Jeddah. "I ran into a stone wall at every turn," he said. "Every department I visited denied that they had the authority to give permission to establish a women's club. In the end, I just abandoned the project." Action has been taken against two women's gyms, in Jeddah and in Dammam, according to al-Madinah newspaper, though clubs in Riyadh have so far been spared.
Saudi clerics have condemned female gyms as "shamelessness" and warned that their presence tempts women to neglect children and husbands.
Meanwhile it was reported yesterday [26APR] that Prince Mansour bin Muteb, deputy minister for municipal and rural affairs, had suggested that Saudi women be allowed to vote.
Only eligible males voted in municipal elections in 2005, the kingdom's first countrywide polls since the state was created in 1932. The election for half the seats on the 178 councils was part of a series of reforms carried out under pressure from the US after the 9/11 terrorist attacks focused international attention on Saudi Arabia's politics.
The deputy minister spoke at a conference of municipal councils in the eastern province, the first indication that the municipal vote would take place this year. But, according to the liberal-leaning daily newspaper al-Watan, he recommended that the government continued to name half the members of the councils.
Last month Prince Nayef, the powerful interior minister and half-brother of King Abdullah, said the kingdom had no need of either women MPs or elections. Shortly afterwards he was named second deputy prime minister, boosting his chances for the succession.