They may not be able to drive in the Kingdom yet, but Saudi Arabian women sure can fight like a girl. And there is one woman in particular who is leading this movement, 39 year old Halah Al Hamrani who owns a private gym in Jeddah called Flagboxing. She is considered to be the first female kickboxing and boxing trainer in Saudi Arabia.
In this conservative kingdom, many sports are typically seen as male-dominated, but Halah is determined to change that narrative. In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, the leading English-only paper in the country based out of Jeddah, she shared her story with the publication in the hope that it will inspire other women to focus on fitness, despite negative associations surrounding women who play sports.
Halah’s relationship with sports and the fitness industry began at the age of 12 when she started practicing karate. An American couple living in Jeddah later introduced her to Jiu Jitsu, which she ended up teaching and earning a black belt in. She has been practicing Muay Thai for 12 years and kickboxing for 7 years, and is also trained to teach Crossfit. Is there anything this woman cannot do?!
Her background is not the type of narrative we are used to hearing about women from Saudi Arabia, but it is important that the media share these stories with the world. Halah says she was lucky to grow up with a supportive family and recognizes the importance of strong female role models in a girl’s life.
“Generally, sports are not considered an important part of a woman’s upbringing, and women in Saudi Arabia are not encouraged to pursue a career in sports. Times have changed, and women of all ages are more active today. They are realizing that fitness is a crucial aspect of a healthy lifestyle… I see the positive impact it has on nearly every facet of their lives…With hard work and perseverance women can have the same ambitions and can attain the same goals that men strive to achieve in sports,” she said in the feature published both online and in print on International Women’s Day.
The name Flagboxing is the acronym for Fight Like A Girl and is a perfect representation of not just what Halah is doing at her gym, but her part of the movement of women in Saudi Arabia generally who are fighting for equality in a number of ways.
“When choosing a name for my Instagram account, I wanted to make a statement that reflected my views on female empowerment. Initially, Flagboxing started as an experiment. I needed a tool that would allow me to track my progress and document my journey. At the same time, I hoped that I would inspire the same in other Saudi women,” she said.
The @Flagboxing account today has over 15,000 followers. Some of the increased attention she credits to a feature in the February issue of National Geographic which led to more people wanting to train with her. While social media has now become a key tool for her to promote her work, she still receives some negative attention.
“There will always be conservative people who don’t believe in my views, but I don’t allow other people’s opinions to sway me from my long-term goals,” she said.
Halah fully understands that furthering the female empowerment movement is more important than bowing to any conservative agenda.
“I believe that we are entering a new era of female empowerment in Saudi Arabia. Women are now able to vote, jobs are opening up to them in nearly every field, and they enjoy more lifestyle choices then they’ve ever had before. I only pray that women learn to take advantage of these new opportunities and expand their horizons to include previously unattainable jobs in society. Although I am advocating female involvement in sports, I would encourage women to follow their dreams in whatever field they might be interested in,” she said.
Her hope is to one day see her country produce a female Olympic champion. Women were first allowed to compete for Saudi Arabia in the 2012 London Summer Olympics after pressure from the International Olympic Committee. However the country, which has only participated in 8 Olympics games in total is yet to compete in the Winter Olympics.
Although Halah is inspiring women in her own community, she has some words of advice for the online community using social media as a tool to share an important message.
“I believe that social media is a great tool for connecting with people from all backgrounds, and that it helps to break boundaries between different cultures. Don’t be afraid to start your journey on social media — you might receive negative comments, but its important not to take it personally. Look at the bigger picture,” she concluded.
We hope Halah’s story will continue to spread and empower other women to take control of their futures. There is still much progress to be done in terms of equal rights, but we feel it is also important to amplify the positive stories as they come to light.