We would like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the following article is a reprint from Aljumuah magazine (the print copy). The article was published several years ago, hence the possibility that some information it contains might be outdated. We publish the article for the reason that it carries ideas that are still useful and relevant.
IN THE BIG CITIES of the Muslim world, it is usually possible to find health clubs and exercise facilities that cater exclusively to women. Membership in such clubs gives Muslim women the opportunity to participate in organized sports, take classes and keep fit without compromising their modesty in front of non-relative men. Such activities are also a fun way to meet new friends and stay committed to an exercise regime.
Clubs for women also exist in North America, Europe and Australia, but they are fewer. Whenever someone tries to establish such a facility, there are often accusations of discrimination against men, and the battle has to be fought in court. Despite the struggles, there are now some successful chains of all-female health clubs. Their owners, although not Muslims, have argued that women have the right to exercise in privacy, away from the roving eyes of men and the uncomfortable atmosphere of dealing with sensitive issues such as weight in front of the opposite sex.
Jan Broome, marketing manager for Reviva, [i] a chain of health clubs in the United Kingdom, says, “Ladies have very specific requirements when it comes to the environment they exercise in, including the type of equipment they prefer, the studio classes they want, the services they like to be offered, and the people they choose to exercise with.”
A Dilemma for Muslims
By acknowledging the special concerns of women, such clubs may be a positive step in the right direction, but they often do not meet the needs of Muslim women for several reasons. First and foremost, the Muslim’s code of modesty is not as simple as separating men from women. Muslims also believe in protecting their modesty in front of the same gender. Therefore, both Muslim men and women face a dilemma in the locker-room and shower scene of the typical gym (segregated or not), where it is common to disrobe and shower in front of others. This is aside from the issue of immodest clothing worn by many people while exercising, which often does not meet the minimum requirements needed to cover one’s ‘awrah.
As Muslims, we also have to be aware that separate sex facilities can be attractive to people for the wrong reasons. Frankly, we were shocked while doing research for this article to come across an advertisement for an all-female swimming pool in Australia, listing benefits for both lesbians and Muslim women, as well as for other groups of women who “don’t want to deal with unwanted attention from men.”
Some Muslim women have decided not to join all-female gyms for other reasons, such as the fact that some clubs are monitored by security cameras, and they may be recorded while exercising or changing their clothes. Some gyms have males come in to maintain the fitness equipment or perform other technical jobs. And there is almost always music playing in the background, which many Muslims find objectionable.
Cultural sensitivity is another important factor. According to one report, Muslim women have been prevented in some clubs from performing their Prayers on the premises or from wearing modest attire while swimming. Taking all of the above into consideration, it is easy to see why a club for women is not the final solution to maintaining fitness when it comes to the needs of Muslim women, which are unique to them and differ from those of the wider society.
Recognizing the desire of Muslims to combine faith with fitness, Muslims in different cities have begun opening their own fitness centers, which strive to create a halal atmosphere in which Muslims can get together and exercise.
Islamic Health Clubs
Al Badr Health & Fitness[ii] is one such center, which opened in East London in December 2003. It is a comprehensive center for the entire Muslim community and offers separate sessions for males and females, an all-female staff during women’s hours and an array of exercise equipment, fitness classes and health awareness programs of interest to its members. There are individual cubicles for changing and showering, modesty requirements (such as shorts to the knees for men), and other perks, such as a cafeteria and child care center.
The SIHA Health and Fitness Centre for Muslim Women[iii] in Ontario, Canada is another example of a health center geared towards Muslims. Less than a year old at this writing, SIHA aims to provide a holistic approach to health by ensuring its customers are “spiritually, socially, physically and mentally enriched.” At the moment, the center offers swimming classes for women and children living in greater Toronto, which is home to over 500,000 Muslims.
When Muslims in Sydney, Australia attempted to open a gym for Muslim women, they met with resistance from residents of Sydney, who believed that such a gym would be unfair to non-Muslims. However, in eventually granting the permit needed to open the gym, Chris Puplick, President of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, wrote that the Board had taken the following factors into account:
The high rate of diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease and obesity amongst Arabic women, their reluctance to seek assistance in relation to their health, the dress code to which many Muslim women adhere, the music and decor of standard gyms, which can be considered unacceptable to practicing Muslims, and access to prayer facilities at the gym.
Further, he said,
Given that there are about 500 gyms in New South Wales, if just one gym aims to meet the needs of Muslim women, how can the rest of the community be disadvantaged? We have to make the playing field genuinely level before we can all be guaranteed an equal chance to play on it. So when we agreed that just one gym was able to serve the very specific needs of Muslim women in Sydney, we did so in the certain knowledge that other non-Muslim people were able to use 499 gyms throughout NSW.
The British Heart Foundation has also acknowledged the unique health problems of South Asians (including Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis) living in the UK, stating that they are 50% more likely to die of coronary heart disease than the general population.
Although an Islamic health club is certainly an innovative idea that would be welcome in most Muslim communities, it is not an easy project to start or maintain. It takes a huge investment of time and money to open a club of any kind, and there are many expenses involved in obtaining the equipment, licenses and staff of professionals needed to operate legally and safely. As many communities struggle just to build mosques and schools, fitness centers are almost always the dream of individual Muslims who must invest their own money to see it realized. During its first year, SIHA has experienced significant financial losses and had to cut back its services substantially due to inadequate membership numbers.
But a health club for Muslims [iv] is an asset that can benefit us all, and we should try to support such projects as much as we support other good causes. In addition to the obvious benefits that come with regular exercise, clubs that cater for Muslims provide a safe environment for socializing and spending one’s leisure time. This is of special relevance to Muslim teenagers, who do not always have a suitable means of meeting other young people with common interests.