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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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ABC news recently published an article about gender segregation in gyms in Doha, Qatar.  The municipal government informed a gym named Fitness First that men and women were no longer permitted to exercise side-by-side and that women must instead use smaller gyms constructed within the changing rooms with less equipment.  Classes are now also to be segregated according to gender, and women will not be permitted to utilize male personal trainers.  The gym stated that no refunds would be issued as a result of these new restrictions.  The article mentions that this has serious implications for female athletes in Qatar–the country is set to send its first female olympians to the 2012 London games.  Will they have adequate training resources, including equipment and mentorship? However, there are many Qataris who also support the initiative.  One women mentioned that the ban will help her exercise more effectively since she will be able to workout without her abaya.

However, if we take a step back, we see that there are many similar initiates in the United States to open gender-segregated gyms.  Though these are not mandated by the government, companies such as Curves and other health clubs cater exclusively to women. Universities have also implemented female-only hours at their gyms: in 2008, Harvard University established female-only hours at one of their Recreation Centers to accommodate female Muslim students.

The ban in Qatar echoes another, more extreme ban implemented by the Saudi government in 2009, in which the government shuttered all women-only gyms.  Officials determined that licensing for gyms would be limited to male-only establishments.  Female-only gyms remained unlicensed and therefore illegal. In response to the ban, women joined together and launched the “let her get fat” campaign, protesting the lack of wellness facilities for women that are not under the auspices of a hospital or other government-run programs.

Like our previous poll about women only taxis, this issue begs the question: are women-only gyms beneficial in that they offer Muslim women a secure environment in which to exercise and train, or do they further promote gender-segregation in these communities?

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