Halah Al Hamrani is a Saudi martial arts instructor and owner of the FLAG (Fight Like a Girl) Boxing gym in Jeddah. A pioneer in the emerging Saudi women’s fitness industry, Halah teaches women to challenge themselves and push their limits.
Women in Saudi Arabia have typically been discouraged from sports, but as the country starts to open itself up to the outside world and modernising forces are at work in Saudi society, all that is starting to change – Halah is at the forefront of that movement.
In honour of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Halah to find out how she made it to where she is today, her thoughts on the social changes sweeping her country, and what inspires her to keep pushing boundaries.
“It all started with my love for martial arts, which began when I was twelve. I studied many different styles starting with karate and then going into Muy Thai and kickboxing when I went to the US to study in San Diego. But when I came back to Saudi Arabia, I realised that there was nothing available within sports for women – in fact, it wasn’t huge for men, either.
It was my mother who gave me the idea. She suggested I start teaching, since I was struggling to find a job in the field that I studied – Environmental Studies. I started teaching classes in my parents house, reaching people only through word of mouth – it was before the era of social media! Fast forward to around three years ago, and my Dad told me I needed to find my own space because I’d been using their house for too long, and that’s where FLAG Boxing came in!
I was adamant that I didn’t want to get onto social media, but my sister persuaded me to. When I started out on Instagram, I was recovering from a miscarriage and was in a really bad place. I decided to document my process of getting back into shape, and how I was using sports and training to make myself feel better. It was such a personal journey for me and I didn’t really think about the effect it would have on people.
But it really resonated with people and I started to get a lot of attention, and that’s when I started to realise the impact I could have – especially on Saudi women. I realised that it isn’t normal to see a Saudi woman practicing martial arts, and it’s certainly not normal for her to put it out there in the public domain so people can see. It’s great that my journey has inspired people, although that was never my intention to begin with. My passion for the sport is what fuels me, and I’m so happy to have that.
Things really took off when National Geographic came to interview me for their piece on ‘The Changing Face of Saudi Women’, although I was really naïve and had no idea it was going to be so big!”
Halah has since appeared in major media outlets around the world and, not only has she inspired Saudi women to take care of their bodies, but she has unintentionally become an icon of women’s empowerment in her country and around the world. What she has achieved is especially remarkable given that she lives in a country where the fitness industry is very new.
We asked her what it’s been like leading this new movement, and what opportunities and challenges the rapid growth of the health and fitness industry presents for Saudi women:
“The fitness industry in Saudi has grown ridiculously quickly over the last three years. For the eleven years prior that I was teaching, there was nothing. We weren’t even allowed to open facilities for women, so not much was happening and anything that did take place was in the private sphere. The government has become very supportive of the industry – they’re trying to promote it as much as possible and bring sports events to the country, for example, last year we had the Mohammed Ali Cup, the MMA, football… And women are allowed to participate now, not just men.
Of course, I worry that the momentum might be too much, that it’s all happening too fast and it might meet resistance. It would be very hard for us mentally to go from this position, where there’s so much excitement and optimism, if it suddenly came to a halt – but that’s always a possibility in this country.
There has been some pushback, but not as much as you might imagine. I think the fact that 70% of the population is under the age of 30 works in our favour, because they really want to move forward. So as long as the government continues as it is and the King continues with the changes that he wants to see happening, I think we’re in a good place, inshallah.
One of the challenges is that people live quite a sedentary lifestyle here, and this is becoming worse thanks to social media and the internet. I see this first-hand as an instructor: it’s difficult to teach people who have never worked out in their lives and don’t have that muscle memory. This is particularly the case for Saudi women, as the only women who have ever practiced any kind of sport are those who went to private schools or spent time abroad. This is only a small percentage of the population, and even then, in most cases it hasn’t been sustained. So it’s hard for people, often they don’t move very easily and it takes a long time to train them.
It’s also a cultural thing: because everyone drives here the sedentary lifestyle has become the norm. But even that is starting to change now; people are out walking, here in Jeddah there is a running group, and you have women who are really trying to change those social norms.”
Not coincidentally, the rapid growth of the fitness industry has happened alongside major social changes taking place in Saudi society, as the government seeks to open the country to the outside world and create new opportunities for Saudi citizens – particularly women.
We asked Halah how she feels about the social changes taking place, and how she responds to the stereotypes of Saudi women that often prevail in the Western media.
“There are huge changes happening for women in Saudi at the moment. For example, lifting the driving ban has completely changed my life! It’s not only given us physical freedom but economic freedom as well, as it’s lifted a huge barrier for women to work. I actually still have my driver because I don’t want to fire him, but he doesn’t really do anything now so I joke with him that he should be training in the gym!
I think the biggest challenge facing Saudi women now is realising mentally what they can accomplish and having the confidence to do it. Opportunities are opening up, everything is there and available for women now, but the hardest thing is changing how they think, and getting them to make the move towards doing whatever they want to do.
There are still frustrating stereotypes of Saudi women in the media internationally, although I do understand where this comes from; Very few foreign journalists were allowed into the country before the current King took over, so they had no idea what Saudi women were really like. So I can understand why these stereotypes exist, but it bothers me when journalists come to the country with these stereotypes in mind and don’t actually want to learn the truth about how we really live. We are not oppressed; we may live within our means and within the expectations of our government, but we are still strong and empowered. Often journalists aren’t interested in hearing that because it’s not going to make a good story, so they end up repeating the same stereotypes and reinforcing what people in other countries think they know about us.
Social change takes time, and even the most liberal countries are still moving towards gender equality and fighting those battles. I think the most important thing – and something we don’t see enough of anywhere in the world – is that women continue to support and lift each other up every day. We all have our own struggles, and instead of competing we should support one another.”
Halah’s story of fearless boundary pushing and creating her own success is hugely inspiring for women, not only in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but around the world. When we asked her about her own role models, her answer was surprising.
“The women I teach in the gym! Especially the ones who work really hard – I’ve done sports all my life so it comes naturally to me. But for these women it doesn’t, they haven’t developed the mentality that goes along with the practice. You have to know how to push yourself, when to push yourself – and it’s not something you develop right away, it happens over many years. And these women are trying to develop that without those years of practice.
When someone puts themselves in a situation where they’re working beyond what they’re comfortable with, that is a true inspiration to me. That’s why I love my job so much, because these women – the ones who really want to try and to work hard – they’re incredible. So I would say they are my number one inspiration, which is great because I get them on a daily basis!”
Having accomplished what many Saudis just a few years ago would have thought impossible, we asked Halah what advice she would give her younger self?
“It gets better. When I was young I had a hard time because I had ADD, so I suffered a lot in school and always thought of myself as a stupid kid because nobody really understood what it was at the time. So they would point at me like, ‘Oh, she’s the naughty kid, she doesn’t study…’ In fact, that’s actually why I gravitated toward sports, because I was able to excel in it. I needed it to feel good about myself because without it I constantly felt like a failure. So I would tell myself, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay’. Because so much of the time I thought I wasn’t.”
And what’s next for Halah and FLAG Boxing…?
“One of my goals at the moment is to go to some of the more remote cities in Saudi to give boxing and self-defence classes to women and promote women’s empowerment. That’s one of the many things on my list.
When I started teaching my goal was to spread the sport, to get women active and moving, and that turned into a goal to get girls into competitions. We need to be working with the younger generation to help them build up their skills. It’s a long process and it won’t happen overnight. We can bring in new competitions – and we are – but developing incredible athletes will take years. It’s a generational thing and we have to start with the youngest.
We have just started a programme for kids, but we need more people and more coaches. It’s a challenge; on the one hand, we’re going through a stage as a country where we’re trying to get more Saudis into the workforce, but that can be difficult when you’re recruiting coaches, because you need people who have trained their whole lives, and because it’s such a new thing in our country we just don’t have that. So for now, we need to recruit coaches from abroad.
I’m also working with a friend in Bahrain to put together a self-defence programme for women, which I’m really excited about. For a lot of women in this country, the main reason for their interest in boxing is self-defence, for whatever reason. This is something I’ve wanted to do for fifteen years and I’ve finally found the right person to work with. We’re hoping to launch it within the year, inshallah.
So I’m excited and I’m happy to get up in the morning. I know I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, and that’s my driving force!”