If you follow any of my other social media platforms you will be aware that I was in Saudi Arabia for work this year as store support during Ramadan. This not only meant having to dress in an entirely different way but also not eating in public during daylight. Fortunately, my hotel allowed Westerners to order room service if we did not want to follow the fasting pattern. Indeed, as I was in peak triathlon race season and working, fasting was not an option if I was intending on maintaining performance. On my LinkedIn page you can read about some of the complexities I had to deal with in terms of attire for work.
Not only did I have to consider how I dressed and ate according to Ramadan, but also my triathlon training. Researching my hotel before departure I was so pleased to see there was going to be a top end suite of equipment. However, on arrival I was reminded again of the harsh gender differences at play in the Gulf. In the hotel room there were instructions on how to gain access to the ‘ladies gym’ on the seventh floor. I duly obtained the key from reception and made my way to the seventh floor. As I was walking around public spaces, and despite it being 30 degrees Celsius outside, I still had to go to the gym win my loose fitting tracksuit bottoms and top as well as with my head scarf. Arriving at room 712 I discovered the ladies gym, in direct contrast to the slick operation of the men’s facilities, was merely a bedroom with the beds removed to make way for an old running machine, a basic spin machine and cross trainer. During my approximate two week stay I think only one other person used this ‘gym’, not that I saw them but there were signs someone had been in too. Clearly there was no reason for the hotel to invest in a sophisticated women’s gym suite.
At least when working out in the ‘gym’ I was able to train in my usual kit as I would have collapsed with heat exhaustion otherwise. Even with the air-conditioning at ull blast I was perspiring at an astonishing rate. You cannot train outside in Saudi Arabia, possibly at night, because it is so hot. On a couple of occasions as I went to work on the night shift I glimpsed a girl training with a male relative in the space between lanes on one of the highways in a loose tracksuit.
From the London 2012 Olympics I distinctly remember a female Middle Eastern athlete rowing at Dorney Lake, finishing considerably behind the other competitors. At the time I did not appreciate the cultural and physical barriers this woman had had to surmount. Then in this month’s issue of Monocle Magazine I was reading about gutsy Zahra Lari who in 2018 will be the first athlete from the Gulf, let alone woman, to compete in a Winter Olympics. Not only has she had to win over conservative views in her home culture of Abu Dhabi but amazingly she has also been subject to objections from the International Skating Union who were concerned about her head scarf, apparently “They wanted to see that the headscarf was not flying around, slipping off or going to choke.” This is utterly shameful, we should be encouraging these cultures to respect female freedom. A trailblazer can often begin an albeit slow revolution.
Just last night around the dinner table on a triathlon camp I was telling my coach and fellow participants how after two years of endurance sport training my gym bag still warrants remarks from colleagues whereas not a second look passes over to gentlemen carrying the same.
Equality is not only in terms of freedoms and rights but also in terms of perception. Yes, I am a woman with physical differences. No, I cannot and do not expect to compete with the same times as men. But woe betide anyone who thinks I am unable to achieve the same distances or challenges as men, I will just go about it in a different way.