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

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.”

What now for Saudi Arabia’s big four teams?

Updated 19 April 2018

What now for Saudi Arabia’s big four teams?

  • Al-Hilal won their 15th top-flight title this season.
  • Big summer for Saudi Arabia football with the Green Falcons at the World Cup.

Now the Saudi Professional League season is over for another year Arab News can look back at their title tilts and what the big four clubs have to do over the coming months ahead of the next season.



Finished: Champions

Coaching situation: Ramon Diaz was in charge for much of the season, but was fired in February after setbacks in the Champions League.
Assistant Juan Brown did Okay in the final stretch, but a top-class coach could get more out of this team.

Squad priorities: A reliable goalscorer to support Omar Khribin and with veteran defender Osama Hawsawi leaving for pastures new, a replacement center-back with leadership qualities. Welcoming back the major stars — Carlos Eduardo, Khribin, Nawaf Al-Abed and Salem Al -Dawsari — will be a major boost.

Aim next season: Win the AFC Champions League



Finished: Second

Coaching situation: Sergiy Rebrov is out of contract at the end of June. His future is likely to depend on how the team fares against Al-Sadd in the second round of the AFC Champions League in May.

Squad priorities: There is not much wrong. The Jeddah giants were the highest scorers in the league last season and had the second best defense. Keeping star midfielder Leonardo fit will help as will a little cover in the center of defense. Star striker Omar Al-Somah fell out with the coach in a public way in the penultimate game of the season. It may be that one of them has to go. The Syrian has been player of the year for three years and has a longer contract than Rebrov.

Aim next season: Win the league. Maintain good performances in Asia.


Finished: Third

Coaching situation: Krunoslav Jurcic arrived in January and the former Croatian national team boss produced an upswing in results. May just be a temporary appointment and it needs to be sorted quickly.

Squad priorities: Looks good with the Saudi Arabia national team keeper, a strong center-back pairing of Omar Hawsawi and Bruno Uvini and the full-back position seemingly sorted with the January signing of Saad Suhail. They probably need a defensive midfielder and have to keep Junior Kabananga. The DR Congo striker has shown enough in his few weeks at the club to suggest that he could be a real star next season, especially with Leonardo pulling the strings behind him.

Aim next season: A genuine title challenge and getting through the play-offs into  the 2019 AFC Champions League.



Finished: Ninth

Coaching situation: A bottom half finish is unacceptable for a team with Al-Itithad’s stature and history. Chilean coach Jose Luis Sierra may find that winning domestic cups is no substitute for challenging for the title.

Squad priorities: There is too much reliance on players such as Carlos Villanueva, a creative spark in the team, and Fahad Al-Ansari, the midfield engine, who are the wrong side of 30. The possible return of star winger Fahad Al-Muwallad will help, but an introduction of energy is needed.

Aim next season: Top three and, if the team wins the King’s Cup, a good showing in the 2019 AFC Champions League.