As a Saudi woman who loves exercising and lives by the belief that working out is an essential part of any daily routine, I felt personally offended when I watched the recent Nike ad. Since my teenage years (in the early 80’s), my mom, who was born in the early 50’s, has taught me that working out is not something temporary in our life; it’s a life style. During the 80’s, my mom and I would play workout videos of Jane Fonda, Raquel Welsh, and later Callan Pinckney at least 3 times a week along with half an hour of swimming or walking in our small garden.
Back then, it wasn’t ordinary to work out, but our family and friends would always look at mom with respect for committing to exercising. I have to also mention that my eldest aunt, who is 11 years older than my mom, has always been (and until now) crazy about working out!
Exercise back then was not the usual thing for a woman to do (not even for a man), but it was never frowned upon by people in our community.
Moreover, things have become better when I moved from Makkah to Jeddah in the early 90’s after I got married. My two sisters-in-law used to go to a gym called KTG (as far as I remember). I couldn’t join them back then because I was a new mom busy learning how to take care of my first child, but I would never quit exercising at home. It only needed a video tape and some comfy clothes to be fit, and I managed to be fit and stay fit till this day.
Later on, one of my cousins, Nada Hamza Al-Suleimani, who is the first Saudi certified fitness trainer in Jeddah, guided me a lot with the most updated nutrition and workout plans. She also introduced me to Cindy Crawford’s Shape Your Body program, which did wonders to me. Of course, I had my ups and downs during my journey with exercise, but it never stopped; rather it developed. I joined several gyms in Jeddah (some were part of hospital programs), and very few were independent gyms like Concept 10 and Gold’s Gym. And finally, after many years of going to different gyms, which are always crowded with women from different ages, I managed to have my own home gym.
And today, after all of that, Nike creates an ad that shows us as a society that rejects working out and stigmatizes women who exercise! I really feel offended! I know not all women in Saudi Arabia exercise, but I am, along with so many women, are part of this society. We exercise, and we observe how people react to us. I have never heard of a Saudi woman being shamed for exercising (at least not in the urban areas).
Moreover, since 2010 and until now, there have been many groups of female and male experts, nutritionists, trainers, and doctors whose sole goal is to spread health awareness and to motivate people to eat healthy and to exercise. Those experts are young and middle-aged Saudi men and women. Among them is Dr. Rayan Karkadan and his wife Dr. Shaymaa Al-Shareef, Ms. Jumana Jalal, Dr. Manal Marghalani, and Dr. Abdul Rahman Bukhari, to mention a few.
Due to those people’s motivational campaigns, more and more girls and women started to embrace exercise in their lives, and more gyms have opened based on the high demand.
Also, most private schools (since the late 90’s till now) offer PE classes, and there have always been competitions and tournaments among the best schools. Leading universities in Jeddah such as Dar Al-Hekma University and Effat University have amazing and well-equipped gyms for students and for employees (free of charge). Also, these universities have teams of basketball and tennis, and those teams compete in annual tournaments. Here, I am talking about Jeddah alone, but I know from some of my friends who live in Riyadh and Dammam that the situation is almost the same in their cities.
However, public schools do not have PE classes for girls and only one class or two maximum per week for boys. The problem with these schools is far more complicated than having PE classes or not for girls; they don’t have basic educational facilities for students (boys and girls) and the situation is worse than being described by anyone ever (don’t get me started…I would need volumes!).
So, coming from such a background, being a vibrant woman who has embraced physical activity most of her life, and witnessing such a boom in the workout world in my city in less than 5 years…all of that makes me really upset to see an ad that degrades my society and trivializes the issue in such an inaccurate way. I guess, we as Saudi women, are doomed to be stereotyped forever and doomed to be looked at as the oppressed beings who are in desperate need of the white woman or man’s help! I think the media loves this image of us; otherwise, they won’t have any material to talk about.
Yet the problem of the ad is not just my personal reaction towards it; it’s four more major issues!
The first is in the way the ad showed Muslim women revealing their bodies in order to workout. I am not a hijabi fanatic, but wearing shorts is not an image of a true Muslim woman. Besides, as a woman who knows very well what it means to work out, I know that wearing shorts or revealing outfits is not a requirement. Female Muslim athletes around the world have proven that they can be athletic while preserving their decency…remember the Burkini athletes?
The second issue is that the ad is creating a new image for women to follow; being strong makes you a better woman as opposed to being beautiful/vulnerable makes you more desirable. Who are they to impose on women what and how to be? A woman can be anything she wants to be; strong, vulnerable, peaceful, calm, rebellious…etc. No one has the right to tell us how we should be. The ad is actually contradicting itself, and it can easily backfire. “What would they say about you?” Ok, Nike…what if I don’t want to exercise or reveal my body, what would people say about me? What if I wanted to look more feminine? What would people say? What if I didn’t spend my money on your sportswear? What if I bought my sportswear from Reebok or from an unknown brand?
What would people say? I really don’t care, and it never crosses my mind when I exercise. What I care about is how ads shape our thoughts and impose on us certain images. “Be strong and rebellious” is the new “Be slim and beautiful”… It’s just another way to control women and to shape the public opinion. That’s not empowering, guys! It’s just another way of changing women to fit certain media-made standards! I wonder what the next image would be!
The third issue with the ad is that it is not really helping us as Saudi women; in fact, such an ad, when seen by conservatives, will only prove them right! They will take this ad against all our calls for equal rights and for promoting exercise for women. Now they have a solid proof that the whole idea of working out is part of a Westernization conspiracy against Muslim women; a conspiracy that aims at encouraging women to rebel against decency. What people don’t realize is that any interference from the American and British media in our issues as Saudi women has always been nothing but a hindrance to any progress. Anything that comes from the West (good or bad) …absolutely anything is just looked at as pure evil, and hence, any decision in the favor of women is frozen. Even within families, I believe now after this ad, some conservative fathers’ attention would be dragged to the issue of indecent clothes while working out…this will make it much harder for their daughters. I think it’s going to be “an eye-opener” for such fathers. (pun intended) You guys are not helping; you’re adding fuel to fire.
Most importantly, the core of the problem of exercise for females, as notable Saudi economist Reem Asaad has put it in her Snapchat account, is that the whole idea upon which the ad is based is inaccurate. Is it really the society who prevents women from working out or frowns upon their physical activity? “No” says Reem Asaad, “It is all in the hands of the decision-makers, which is not the society whatsoever!” It is true that the society has a role, but once a decision is taken from “above”, everyone conforms to it, even if they disagree with it, adds Reem Asaad.
And this leads me to the fourth problem with the Nike ad; they didn’t do their homework well! I have done a quick and simple survey a month ago, to which 323 women from different cities in Saudi Arabia responded. Most respondents were women from Jeddah, Makkah, and Riyadh; others were from Dammam, Al-Jubail, Al-Madina, and Al-Qaseem.
The survey included girls and women from different ages and different educational backgrounds and work fields. It also included students and stay-at-home moms. 33% of women said they exercise regularly, 53% said they exercise sometimes, and only 13% said they never exercise. 54% said they exercise at home and 10% said they exercise at the gym.
Now the central question in the survey was “If you do not exercise at all, what are your reasons?” and guess what the majority said? Nope, they didn’t say that they were worried about what the society might say about them. 55% of the women who said they never exercise chose this answer “the cost of gyms is so high”, and 17% said “the cost of workout equipment is high.” Other responses varied between 16% “I don’t like exercising”, 45% “I don’t have time”, 1% “I don’t believe in its importance” and 2% “My family/husband prevents me.” Zero percent said they believe it was forbidden by religion.
Another essential question in the survey was “Do you know women (in your society) who exercise?” 80% responded with a “yes”! Also, when asked about people’s reaction to women who exercise and how the society looks at those women, 70% responded that people admired and encouraged such women who exercises, 29% said that people were neutral about those women, and only 1% said that people questioned those women’s morals.
What does this show? Two things; the Nike advertisement team hasn’t done their homework well, and that their popular slogan “Just Do It!” seems to be a “Just Don’t Do It” when it comes to researching and surveying. I wonder on what basis they have created such an ad; on Middle Eastern societies in the eighties? Maybe! Or maybe they were driven by their “Just Do It” thingy that they just did the ad without thinking! Way to go, Nike! What enthusiasm!
To conclude, I am glad that Nike did this ad because it made me realize how aware our society has become regarding exercising. My last question in the survey was “What is the most thing that helps women embrace an active and healthy lifestyle?” and the answers were heart-warming. 85% responded “having self-motivation and a true desire to live a healthy life.” Other responses included: 65% “having more gyms in all neighborhoods with reasonable prices”, 46% “Family and up-bringing”, 28% “Nutrition and fitness programs on social media”, 27% “School and university”, 21% “specifying time for exercise during working hours”, 14% “not depending completely on housemaids”, and only 1% responded by “having equipment and sportswear from costly brands”…the last one made me laugh hard; how ironic! It also made me happy and proud that Saudi women are becoming more and more aware that it’s not about buying stuff from well-known brands; it’s about their deep desire to change and commit to a healthy lifestyle.
Truly, wise and well-educated women know it’s not about buying sportswear from Nike that will free them and make them commit to exercise. More and more women now are starting to realize that the best gym and sportswear is “commitment.” God bless Saudi women. They are great whether they purchase or don’t purchase Nike products.
*The survey is still active and I will update it every week.