Pulling no punches: Saudi woman boxer breaks exercise taboo in Kingdom

Pioneering boxing coach Halah Al-Hamrani is empowering and getting fit a new generation of women at her gym in Jeddah. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Pulling no punches: Saudi woman boxer breaks exercise taboo in Kingdom

JEDDAH: Throwing punches in a gym tucked away from prying eyes, a Saudi Arabia female boxing trainer is the embodiment of a rapidly changing landscape in the Kingdom.
Halah Al-Hamrani, 41, runs a gym for women called FlagBoxing — its motto is Fight Like A Girl — in the western Red Sea city of Jeddah, offering fitness classes such as callisthenics, CrossFit, boxing and kickboxing. Al-Hamrani is working to empower a generation with little to no exposure to sports.
“On a daily basis, women who have never done sports walk into my class, some with their mothers,” Al-Hamrani told AFP at her gym, which opened in 2016.
“They walk out more confident. Many find their voice. The mothers approach me and say: ‘Thank you for offering such an empowering feeling’.”
At first blush, the gym screams California, not Saudi Arabia.
Wearing headbands and workout attire, women are seen lifting weights, practicing sparring techniques and pounding their fists into a punchbag.
Some of them crumple up their abaya gowns and toss them into a locker. They sweat it out over thumping music.
Around 150 women, including Saudis but also other Arabs, share a sense of camaraderie.
A note scribbled on a whiteboard reads: “I can’t wait to come back!”
Another banner on the wall reads “BADASS.”
“It sometimes feels like a tea party — without the tea and cookies,” Al-Hamrani jokes.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan, the government is seeking to jump-start women’s sports. Only four Saudi women featured in the Rio Olympics in 2016 after two were named in the team for London in 2012 — the first time the Gulf nation sent female athletes to the Games.
The Kingdom has since then been granting more prestige to the idea, appointing prominent Princess Reema bint Bandar to oversee women’s sports.
The country is also moving toward compulsory physical education classes for girls after a ban was scrapped in 2014. Al-Hamrani is involved in shaping the new public school sports curriculum.
As the daughter of an American mother and Saudi father, she was fortunate her parents were open-minded and encouraged sports from an early age.
That start has put her on track to become one of the Kingdom’s early pioneers of women’s boxing training.
For now, her low-profile gym operates out of a residential complex, behind opaque glass walls with no outdoor signage.
The location is available on her website, but even so, some first-timers have to call to find their way.
Some clients view the gym sessions as therapy, Al-Hamrani said. It offers them such a release that she said some of them end up crying.
“I used to be a timid mother who could not look people in the eye,” said a 36-year-old housewife and mother-of-four, and a regular at the gym.
“The gym gave me a voice that I had lost. It gave me strength that I never knew existed.”
But Al-Hamrani said some women have dropped out after they began “expressing themselves boldly” in a way that sometimes makes male relatives feel threatened.
“My husband is unhappy,” was one of the reasons Al-Hamrani was given.
Under the country’s guardianship system, a male family member — normally the father, husband or brother — must grant permission for a woman’s study, travel and other activities. Also holding back women’s sports is an acute shortage of professional female athletes and coaches.
Women’s gyms are slowly proliferating, but the idea of mixed gender sports remains taboo.
And some female professionals still caution against offending cultural sensibilities.
“Sports is empowerment,” said Lina Almaeena, a member of the Kingdom’s advisory Shoura Council, and director of Jeddah United, Saudi Arabia’s first women’s basketball team.
“We are not fighting for mixed gender, abaya-less sporting events. Our aim is not to go against our culture. Our goal is mass participation of women in sports.”


Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

Updated 21 March 2019
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Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

  • Former Saudi Arabia coach wants to guide the Whites to their first World Cup since 1990.
  • "If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here," Dutchman says of his new job.

LONDON: Bert van Marwijk has told the UAE he only has one thing on his mind: getting them to the 2022 World Cup.
The former Saudi Arabia boss was unveiled as the new coach of the Whites before watching his new team beat his former team 2-1 in a friendly in Abu Dhabi. While he was in the stand rather than the dugout — interim boss Saleem Abdelrahman took charge — he would have liked what he saw as he set himself the challenge of leading the UAE to their first showpiece since 1990.
“I’m here for only one thing, and that’s to qualify for the World Cup,” the Dutchman said.
“It takes a long time and the first thing we have to deal with is the first qualification round. That’s why I’m here.”

Van Marwijk was celebrated after he led the Green Falcons to last year's World Cup before calling it quits. (AFP) 


Van Marwijk guided Saudi Arabia to last year’s World Cup — the Green Falcons’ first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — during a two-year stint which ended in September 2017 after contractual negotiations broke down. That was one of the key reasons the UAE fought hard for the 66-year-old and while it is never easy getting through Asian qualifying — 46 teams going for just four direct slots at Qatar 2022 — the Dutchman claimed his experience, not least with Saudi Arabia, combined with his knowledge of the UAE, will stand him in good stead.
“The Saudis and the UAE are about the same level. With the Saudis we qualified for Russia, so we will do really everything to go to Qatar in 2022,” Van Marwijk said.
While he is fondly remembered in the Kingdom it is his time as the Netherland coach that really stands out on his managerial resume. Van Marwijk coached the Oranje to within minutes of the World Cup trophy, only an Andres Iniesta extra-time winner preventing him from tasting ultimate glory against Spain in 2010.
So why did he return to the Gulf for another crack at World Cup qualification in a tough, crowded race?
“One of the reasons is the feeling — I have to have the right feeling when I sign a contract,” Van Marwijk said.
“We analyzed the UAE, we played four times against each other with Saudi, so I can see the potential.
“I have had the experience to go to the World Cup twice. The first time we were second in the world, the second time was with Australia (whom he coached last summer) and we were a little bit unlucky — we played very well. So to go to the World Cup for the third time is the goal.”
Van Marwijk is all too aware his task will be a difficult one. The fabled “Golden Generation” of Emirati footballers, spearheaded by Omar Abdulrahman, tried and failed to make it to football’s biggest tournament, and a lot of the next three years work will likely depend on a new generation.
“I heard there were some young talents so I’m anxious to know how good they are,” the Dutchman said.
“That’s the most important thing. If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here.”