When Nesreen joined a running club in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, she was prepared to sweat—not just from physical exertion, but because she would be running in a long black dress and headscarf, as required by state law, in temperatures approaching 100°F. Beyond the blistering heat, the mother of four was worried for her personal safety. Associating with non-familial members of the opposite sex in public is forbidden by religious law, so each time she joined the pack of co-ed joggers, she was putting herself at risk.
“At first I thought, What! Females running in the street?” Nesreen says. “I couldn’t get over what people would think about me, how they would look at me, and what could happen.”
Nesreen has been running for almost a year with the Jeddah Running Collective (JRC), a club that organizes group runs for over 100 male and female members. Its existence would be inconsequential almost anywhere in the world. But in conservative Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive, compete in sporting competitions, or even attend sports tournaments, its very presence boldly challenges the status quo.
The Saudi government has long limited female access to athletics through policies that effectively prevent women from exercising in most gyms, playing sports in schools, and practicing with state-sponsored club teams. This is a stark difference to the front that is being put on for the Olympics: Although the kingdom has sent four women to compete in the 2016 Rio games, some experts call this as a “fig leaf” that simply appeals to the international community while allowing the government to maintain oppressive policies back home.
Yesterday, California born-and-raised athlete Sarah Attar represented Saudi Arabia in her second Olympics. (Her father is Saudi Arabian, which grants her the dual citizenship to compete under the Saudi flag.) She ran in the women’s marathon, where she finished second-last. All four women representing the kingdom this year could reach peak athletic level because they were either born in the States or have spent a large portion of their training time abroad. They had to leave the kingdom, where it is difficult for women to access athletic facilities, to earn their wildcard entries.
Many of the JRC’s female members do not have the same international training options. The group holds practice three times a week, during which they run shorter distances, and also embark on monthly marathon-length run. Sometimes the group ventures to isolated desert paths outside the city or retreats inside rented indoor tracks, but practice most often takes place on the public walking paths that stretch across Jeddah.
Alongside men in Nike shorts and T-shirts, female members run in loose abayas, their faces shrouded in scarves. Nesreen says the outfit is uncomfortable and at times awkward, but she has learned to adapt. “When they told me we were going to run outside, I was like, I don’t want to be cooking in the heat with my black dress,” she says. “At first it was difficult because my abaya was long and I didn’t know how to tie it or what to do with my scarf. But I discovered all the females in JRC were doing it and not making a big deal out of it.”
Both female and male members are often harassed by onlookers who yell derogatory slurs as they run. Occasionally, resistance comes from government officials, and several members have been questioned by the police and even detained in jail. Rod, one of three founders of the club, remembers the evening that police cars arrived and arrested him and several other members for mingling with the other gender. After being held for six hours, they were finally released thanks to the intervention of a close friend and lawyer. “We are all aware and know the consequences of the things that might happen,” Rod says. “While we’re out in public, we have several plans in case of the worst scenario.”
Although the club doesn’t break any state laws, running in a mixed gender group is strictly prohibited by the religious police known as the Mutaween, a squad of government officials designated to enforce Sharia Law. The Mutaween are an integral element of the kingdom’s Wahhabi government and are tasked with rigidly maintaining Qur’an doctrine. This includes restricting inter-sex communication and imposing Islamic dress code.
The club was formed by three expatriates—Jaqueline, Rod and Chase—in December of 2013. (JRC is both shorthand for “Jeddah Running Collective” and an abbreviation of the three founders’ initials.) The group was created with the dual mission of promoting an active lifestyle and fighting for gender equality. “All along women [have] always been part of our group and in the heart of our thinking. We stand on our belief that running has no gender and we strongly implement non-discriminatory acts in the group,” Rod says.
Since its inception, women have flocked to the JRC seeking the chance to exercise, and female members often outnumber men during runs. Some women who initially hesitated to run alongside men in public, fearing repercussions, decided to launch a separate female-only running group associated with the club, called the Jeddah Running Collective Women. They set up Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts, which the club uses to post messages calling for broader equality in sports.
The accounts heavily feature pictures of famous female trailblazers, such as Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry, and images of female JRC runners in action. Under a picture of six women covered in abayas, a post on JRCW’s Tumblr reads: “Don’t be fooled by [their] dark, long, shapeless abayas, because behind those tunic-style dresses are lycra and tights waiting to be unveiled and ready to #OUTRUN [their] naysayers.” Like many other members, Nesreen first spotted the group on social media and says she found messages like these compelling. “I liked what was written about bridging the gap and giving anyone the opportunity to run,” she says.
The JRC supports female athletes during a time when Saudi women face a serious health crisis, with over 44% of women obese or overweight. The high incidence of female obesity can be attributed to government policy, says a scholar at the Gulf Institute, Ali Al-Ahmed, who wrote the report “Killing Them Softly: How Saudi Ban on Women’s Sports is Harming Their Health.” “This ban on women’s sports and active lifestyle is the most devastating of any other restriction, because it impacts their health directly, which impacts everything else—their education, family lives, and mental health,” Al-Ahmed previously told Quartz.
For Nesreen, running serves as “therapy”: It has broadened her social circle, improved her health, and even helped her quit smoking. She revels in the freedom of exercising outdoors, which is a rare moment of release in a regime that controls many aspects of women’s daily lives. Nesreen says that nowadays, “I don’t think about anything. I don’t see how people are looking, or staring, or what they are saying. I just feel proud to be a part of the change that’s coming.”
Some change is already in the works. Rod says that since the group formed in 2013, they have had fewer incidents involving aggressive observers and now many onlookers even cheer for their female runners. On August 2016, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud was appointed to head a new female department of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority. Experts hope she will have the power to implement a series of important reforms, such as establishing physical education curriculums in girls’ state schools and licensing women’s gyms.
Female Olympians also serve as powerful symbols for women who hope to follow in their footsteps. The JRC’s social media accounts are currently filled with images of Sarah Attar, who was one of the first two female athletes to represent Saudi Arabia in the 2012 Olympics. Members applaud Attar’s achievements, and recently posted a Facebook video of members personally wishing her luck in Rio. Attar also regularly trains with the group when she returns home to visit family members in Saudi Arabia. “When Sarah Attar ran with us, just seeing her made me so proud,” Nesreen says. “She’s living our dream and doing it, and we’re just so excited to have her with us.”
Many JRC members look to follow Attar’s example and participate in elite competitions. The collective hopes to be more than a social running club and serve as a platform for women to train at a high level. However, there are scant opportunities for female runners to compete in marathons and races within Saudi Arabia. So for the time being, the club’s main emphasis remains on fighting for equal rights.
“As much as we wanted to go out there and compete, we focus more on spreading our movement about women running in abaya,” Rod says. “We also encourage our male members not to sign up to some competitions and races that are male-only to emphasize our strong commitment to equality. It’s sort of our silent protest to lift the ban on restriction for females to join any public sports and running competitions locally.”
Organizations like the JRC have had a degree of success in forcing the Saudi kingdom to confront and reform oppressive policy. Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch and author of the HRW’s recent report on Saudi female athletes, says that internal pressure motivated what limited reform there has been in recent years. “The most important thing that has changed is that Saudi women are demanding their right to exercise and play sports, for fun and fitness, and to take part in international tournaments. Women’s sports have been an arena for women to push for their rights,” she says.
In recent years, women in the kingdom have made some notable advances. In December of 2015, women voted for the first time. Nine hundred and seventy-eight female candidates, alongside 5,938 men, registered as political candidates, and 21 were elected to office. But progress proves to be slow and limited. Elections were only for municipal council, which is a low rung of Saudi government, and many women reported issues related to identity cards that ultimately prevented them from voting. Saudi Arabia remains one of the most oppressive states for its female citizens and is ranked 135 out of 145 in terms of gender equality by the Global Gender Gap Index. As of 2015, only 15% of Saudi women were employed.
Clearly, significant hurdles remain to bridging the gender gap. But hopefully as women propel themselves forward, the government will be forced to keep pace. “Saudi females are really strong and empowered,” Nesreen says. “Some people have said that we’re suppressed and can’t move and can’t do anything. No—if there is a way, we will do it. All you need is determination.”