Muslim women face varying amounts of oppression from men depending on where they live. In some regions like Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, Israel and the UAE, women are relatively as free as the men to drive, work — and yeah work out. While some women may dream of going to a post-workout Starbucks in Lululemon hot pink workout pants – in Afghanistan women are fighting for the right to work out at all.
In a post-Taliban city of Kahandar, Afghanistan Muslim women are sneaking into a new gym to secretly work out. Though I am not sure how secret that may be now that the story was covered in the New York Times.
Some women say they faced depression and health problems and felt joining the gym – founded by a women’s rights activist Maryam Durani (who survived two suicide bombings and death threats) was the only thing they could do for their well being.
Even Muslim women walking around outside in certain villages in the Bedouin society in Israel is not considered acceptable. So given the restrictions there aren’t a lot of creative ways for every Muslim woman to exercise. I have noticed a growing number of Muslim women walking in conservative workout gear in Jaffa, something I hadn’t seen let’s say 5 years ago. So times are changing, even in Afghanistan. And while women in America fought to wear pants in the 1930s, Afghani women are fighting for the treadmill.
The gym was started last year in a basement, guarded by security, and away from prying eyes.
“Kandahar is a very difficult environment for women. We have to be careful and discreet. The club is as much for women’s mental health as their physical health. Almost every woman who comes here is depressed,” she told the New York Times. Before Covid hit she had about 60 women as members of the gym. Today there are about 30.
One gym member who refused to give her name said, “My father and brothers said they would kill me if I went to a health club.” Instead she puts on a white robe and says she is going to the madrasa, a place for studying the Quran.
While there is a health club for women in the city of Kabul, some areas like Kandahar are extremely conservative.
In my city the Muslim women enjoy a day at the gym every other day of the week at the Jewish Arab Community Center, which is sensitive to Muslim modesty needs. That’s women on one day, and men on the other. There is a beach in North Tel Aviv which operates for the same reasons one day men, one day women, but for Orthodox Jewish families who practice similar modesty laws by choice.
I support any society that wants to be modest, but not the ones enforcing the rules that clearly dehumanise others.
In Bedouin towns in Israel such as Rahat women are not allowed to have free movement including going to work, and walking around the village, so it really depends more on village and town customs, and how men from the families enforce their religious observance, more than a country-wide oppression.
Over in Afghanistan social media posts are calling the gym ‘a house for whores, so women can make themselves look better for men’. Women who visit the new gym have been threatened outside and hit with stones and death threats should they return –– a barbaric response to a basic human need to feel fit.
We need a little more Rumi
Even though the Taliban have left the city the women face the same control by men exerted over them as though the terror group never left, they say.
Afghanistan wasn’t always so repressive towards women. Neither was Iran. Repressive and oppressive regimes have turned both countries into backwater states, with barely a hint of their former selves.
My husband’s great-grandfather was born in Balkh, previously Persia and now Afghanistan, the same town where Rumi, a Muslim Sufi came from. I consider Rumi to be one of the world’s biggest spiritual guides, teaching humility, love for nature, love for god. Years ago his town and region was a mystical and cultural magnet from which the West met the East in much more than trade of goods, but where spiritual ideas looking for the truth and god collided.
Sadly the god of the bullies has taken over and we need to help the women in these impoverished places rise up – one sit up at a time. And remember even progressive-looking women can be married to despots. Read our story about Bashar al Asad’s London-born wife Asma al Asad. And the fiasco with Vogue.
Fuel progressive thinking, and read more stories from Afghanistan and Iran
Or when we covered Surfing in Iran?