Running free

Saudis sprint for equal rights

Each March 8, we are encouraged in new ways to fight for equality. In Saudi Arabia this year, International Women’s Day is celebrated in a very back-to-basics way, doing what humans were born to do: run.

Around 300 women have registered ahead of the three races held today in three Saudi cities: Jeddah, Riyadh and Medina. The team behind the initiative is Jeddah Running Collective, a Saudi community promoting running as a means for personal and social change. The group holds regular trainings for Saudi runners, and encourage women in particular to take up running. Followers on social media – both of Jeddah Running Collective and the women-only Jeddah Running Collective Women – have seen their updates from training sessions and competitions, the ultra race many of their runners did in the Hejaz, and their promotion of running in abayas, tagged with #runninginabaya. Last year, the team organised its first International Women’s Day Race in Jeddah; this year, two cities have been added, and many more runners. We talked to Al-Batool Baroom, one of the community’s runners, about the race and what is special about running in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Batool Baroom, one of the runners behind Jeddah Running Collective

What kind of a race are you organising today?

It is a run/walk in support of all women around the world, a female-only event with a 2 kilometer loop where people will run or walk, depending on which category they have signed up for. Runners will be divided into teams and assigned a crew leader, I will be one of them. We have a honorary guest, Nelly Attar, who is a Lebanese athlete and a Nike ambassador, and Nesreen Ghonaim from the team, who will give an introduction about Jeddah Running Collective and the program. There will be short races, team running games and also giveaways, prizes and a photoshoot session.

The race is part of a global movement to put focus on women’s issues. It helps to create awareness, break down stereotypes, gather international support and show that we are also part of the world. Most women everywhere suffer the same conditions: they vary from place to place, but at the end of the day these issues are universal. To unite women who believe in the same fundamental human rights is quite an empowering tool.

Most women everywhere suffer the same conditions: they vary from place to place, but at the end of the day these issues are universal.

Trail running in Saudi Arabian goes on dunes

Who are Jeddah Running Collective and the Jeddah Running Collective Women team – how did you start, and why do you run?

We are a social movement encouraging everyone to run and adopt a healthy lifestyle. We want to provide a comfortable environment where everyone feels included, regardless of age, gender, social status, race, weight, current lifestyle or fitness level. Nothing matters other than your will to run. Jeddah Running Collective Women is a branch dedicated to encouraging and supporting women who want to run, aiming to empower them and break gender stereotypes and social norms that don’t make sense. Because who says that “you cannot do that”? When running, you are not breaking any law, or crossing any ethical or moral boundary, and not compromising any religious teaching.

Who says that “you cannot do that”?

Jeddah Running Collective started with a few people who were passionate about running, fiercely believing that it benefitted society. They made it a mission to convey that wherever they go. The women’s branch started a while after, a result of the unique cultural and social circumstances in Saudi Arabia. I believe that gender stereotypes exist everywhere in the world, but even more so in a country that is very sensitive when it comes to these issues, and in general is pretty segregated. Actually, that is why Jeddah Running Collective Women came into play. We wanted to level the playing field for ladies, and empower those who have a lesser voice in society. We also wanted to create a comfortable and supportive environment, and show that you can be modest and religious while running. For those who feel uneasy running with a mixed group of both men and women, they have the opportunity to run the way they prefer.

Al-Batool Baroom with fellow Jeddah runner Nesreen Ghonaim

How is running in Jeddah? What is particularly good, what is challenging?

It is amazing – both good and bad and challenging! I have never felt more connected to my home city, its streets and people, as I do when running. What is not easy is that Jeddah was not made for runners and pedestrians. There are only so many places where you can find a nicely paved road for a long, flat run. When I see running tracks in other countries, going around a lake or a beautiful park, I feel sad that we don’t have them here. But then again, I love Jeddah, with all its faults and ugliness. It has a spirit and a personality, sometimes I just wish it would dress up more nicely!

The challenging part I believe is running as a female out on the streets. It is quite an unusual sight, and I am sure that not everyone is accepting of it. But to my surprise, on several occasions, I have received very kind and encouraging gestures and words from complete strangers, who were proud and supportive when seeing women run for the first time – that too in our abayas! And it is quite impressive to see the number of women who join these activities increase over short periods of time.

When I see running tracks in other countries, going around a lake or a beautiful park, I feel sad that we don’t have them here. But then again, I love Jeddah. It has a spirit and a personality, sometimes I just wish it would dress up more nicely!

I think the hardest part is trying to set a well-balanced example that you can run, climb and achieve everything you want while still maintaining your personal values, modesty and your own religious and cultural identity. Being a runner, you can be yourself – you are your own unique version of a runner, you don’t have to become a copy of everyone else. You set your own rules, you wear what makes you comfortable and goes with your beliefs and morals. I believe it’s both a challenge and a responsibility towards our future generations to portray examples, to let them know what is possible.

Do you feel that running has a transformative power, that it can change lives?

Where do I start – running has changed my life in so many ways. It has taught me patience, commitment, time management and to prioritise. And it has given me the opportunity to meet amazing and inspiring people, making connections that I will always cherish. But mostly, I think running has taught me not to give up. It’s so painful, especially in the beginning. Sometimes when running, I hate it. I promise myself never to put myself through it again. But then the finishing line approaches, so I keep pushing. Running has taught me to not limit myself to what I believed was possible, because as Mohammad Ali put it, “impossible is nothing”. You become stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally. You believe in yourself, you become a better version of yourself.

To my surprise, on several occasions, I have received very kind and encouraging gestures and words from complete strangers, who were proud and supportive when seeing women run for the first time – that too in our abayas!

At one of Jeddah Running Collective Women’s all-female running sessions.
Running in abaya on the streets of Jeddah

Where do you run with Jeddah Running Collective, in Jeddah and elsewhere?

In Jeddah we run on Tahlia Walkway and Hilton Walkway, and another place on a piece of land that has not yet been developed, where many runners, cyclists and athletes go to train. We also run along the corniche on weekends. We call it the coffee run – it starts from a local coffeeshop early in the morning and ends at the same place, followed by a hefty breakfast. There are areas outside the city where we run also: the mountains of Asfan, Eagle Rock, the sand dunes of Dahban and other places.

What can you say has happened since you started running, has the climate and people’s ideas about running changed?

The numbers have more than doubled. Of course, you get the occasional walk-ins who disappear after a while, but we have many serious and committed members who have become a permanent part of the Jeddah Running Collective family. Levels and paces have improved drastically, and it’s becoming more competitive – I mean that in a good way, the general feeling is still one of a comradery and support. More of us are running half marathons and marathons, and competing in international races like IronMan and triathlons.

We want to level the playing field for ladies and create a comfortable and supportive environment, and show that you can be modest and religious while running.

What future do you see for running in Saudi Arabia? And what would you like to see?

Running is gaining more traction, and while it might be a trend, I know for a fact that once you have experienced it, you will be hooked. So I think more people will adapt it as part of their life. I would love to see more professional opportunities and more resources in Saudi Arabia, like coaches, funding and venues, and more clubs and teams in different areas, for people on different levels and focusing on different things. I would love to see more Saudis participate in international races and being highlighted in the media to encourage others, particularly women.

Running is so simple – it’s really for everyone. It is absolutely free, you only need your shoes and your willpower. You will lose yourself in the moment, and become part of the present with no distractions.

All images are courtesy of Jeddah Running Collective and Al-Batool Baroom.

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