JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – A kickboxer, a chef and a designer are among the millions of women living in Saudi Arabia who are starting to enjoy greater freedoms thanks to a series of reforms that are ushering in a new era for the kingdom.
Certain restrictions affecting the lives of women in the Arab country, such as not being able to drive, open a business without the consent of a male relative, join the military or visit sports arenas, have been lifted under changes introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“With the opening of this gym (…), I feel like I’ve made an impact,” said Hala Hamrani, Saudi Arabia’s first female kickboxing coach.
Since 2003, Hamrani has owned “Flagboxing” – which stands for “Fight Like A Girl” – the country’s first women’s kickboxing gym.
She said she opened the facility “to reinforce the belief that women are perfectly strong and capable in their own right.”
Hamrani has seen a positive transformation in the women who go to train at her gym; they gain confidence, become more outspoken and see Flagboxing as a safe, relaxing space.
She said women came to the gym “intimidated” and “unhappy,” but left with “more confidence,” though a small number has had to quit “because they were getting too empowered.”
“I see ladies who have never been exposed to sports, and literally, they’re in their thirties and they’ve never been to a class or had sports in their lives, and they walk into a boxing class,” she said, noting that this was intimidating to some people.
Eman Joharji designs and sells jumpsuit-style abayas – loose cloak-like garments that cover the body from head to toe, leaving only the face and hands exposed – for women to wear when they do sports.
She told epa she wanted to help fulfill her friends’ needs for a more practical outfit for doing sports outside while creating something that would fit with the nation’s conservative attitude and would not draw disapproval in the streets.
Joharji has sold her colorful abayas, which come in all manner of designs, to clients beyond the kingdom, and a group of female runners who are taking part in a mixed marathon for the first time have commissioned her.
Noura Almoammar, a chef and granddaughter of a former Saudi king, earlier this year opened a restaurant specializing in healthy eating.
She decided at an early age to pursue an independent professional career, and trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before opening “Dayem O Amer, DOA” with a friend in February.
Almoammar told epa she wanted to combine her love for cooking and hosting people and offer healthier options for diners.
Until recently, women were forbidden from mixing with men who were not relatives outside of family settings.
Many women are hopeful that the new changes will allow them to take part more publicly in the lives they want, and will no longer need to seek permission from a male relative in order to open a business.
The changes come under Saudi Arabia’s “Vision for 2030,” a long-term plan to modernize the country that according to the crown prince aims to transform the kingdom into an “investment powerhouse” and “global hub” in terms of trade.