Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s port city on the Red Sea, serves as a commercial hub full of beach resorts and sights, as well as a gateway into the Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina. Several kilometres inland from the Red Sea, with its breathtaking coral reefs, is the Al Rawdah district, where a private, all-women gym tries to remain concealed from prying eyes.
Though inconspicuously tucked away on the bottom floor of a beige building near Prince Saud Al Faisal street, a quick peek inside is more than enough to reveal the contents of the gym. Heavy bags line the white walls in several spacious rooms, while equipment like wall bars, parallel bars, pull-up bars, and a boxing ring fill the space. Pop music blasts through various speakers and echoes across the gym, motivating dozens of women to dig deeper and punch harder.
The gym’s atmosphere is contagious. The thunderclap of shins striking Thai pads mixes with cries of intensity, penetrating the already-loud space with raw emotion. The women work themselves into a frenzy, guided by their coaches and watched over by gym owner Halah Al-Hamrani. She wears a sleeveless shirt emblazoned with her gym’s logo in turquoise: FlagBoxing, an acronym for Fight Like A Girl.
Al-Hamrani is always present in the gym, guiding her students with precise instructions, technique, and doses of praise. Fluent in both Arabic and English, she is able to switch fluidly between the two languages depending on the needs of her students. She exudes confidence and is able to command a room with her presence, which she then uses to cultivate a productive environment for Saudi women of all shapes and sizes.
The 41-year-old is more than just another gym owner. Religious and patriarchal influences over Saudi society make it virtually impossible for women to exercise freely, maintain their health, and learn to defend themselves from potential attackers. Many of the women who attend Al-Hamrani’s gym start with no experience in sports and are continuously supervised by their mothers, and many emerge with newfound confidence. “My mission statement originated with health and wellness,” Al-Hamrani told Deadspin in a phone interview. “Martial arts is such a beautiful sport to do. It helps women gain mental strength. That is where the empowerment comes from. Coming into one of the classes isn’t just about getting into shape. It is so much more. It translates into empowerment and I’ve seen it happen within the hour.”
Halah Al-Hamrani’s introduction to martial arts began during middle school. Because she was born into a privileged family who could afford private schooling, she was allowed to participate in sports, which is uncommon for girls in Saudi schools. Encouraged by her parents to participate in as many activities as possible, Al-Hamrani came across karate at age 12 and began her journey into the world of combat sports.
“Martial arts was something I picked up in school,” Al-Hamrani said. “I continued with Taekwondo, hapkido, and I procured my black belt in Japanese jiujitsu from an expat couple that was living in Saudi Arabia at the time.”
As the daughter of a Saudi father and an American mother, Al-Hamrani was offered a more progressive perspective than most Saudi children. She spent much of her youth traveling to the United States with her mother, where she would visit family during the summer and play sports. This acquaintance with different cultures and their treatment of women shaped Al-Hamrani’s understanding of women’s role in society.
“Women’s rights was something embedded in me from a very young age,” Al-Hamrani explained. “I grew up with an American mother and she played a big role in shaping me. My father had many responsibilities, so my mother was the primary caregiver in the house and she is a strong woman. I grew up watching that my whole life. She had a voice and now so do I.”
After completing her high school diploma in Jeddah, Al-Hamrani went on to study environmental science and international relations in San Diego, where she also continued her martial arts education. Having already trained in classic disciplines, she decided that she wanted to try her hand at combat sports that required more physicality. “I wanted to learn how to throw a proper punch,” she said. “The martial arts that I had taken prior were more about kicks and throws. So I started to practice Muay Thai.”
Her interests shifted depending on the coaches she trained with, and she ended up learning the striking techniques in boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai. Upon her return to Saudi Arabia, Al-Hamrani said, she was “kind of lost” as to what she was going to do with her life and decided to take a year off. Neither of her degrees was in demand in Saudi Arabia, which made it next to impossible for her to find a job. and left her to re-evaluate what she wanted to do with her future.
Eventually, Al-Hamrani’s mother suggested that she begin teaching sports, and she decided to begin a career as an instructor. “At the time there was no one teaching martial arts to women in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Hamrani said. “I’m still the only kickboxing/boxing martial arts gym for women in Saudi. I immediately realized that there was a huge demand for it, even 15 years ago.”
At age 26, Al-Hamrani began teaching martial arts from her parents’ home. She acquired a handful of students and relied on word of mouth to increase her numbers because social media had yet to become a pivotal force for businesses. Word about her gym began to spread, and she attracted students interested in trying their hand at combat sports. But it took a while before she was able to secure a group of regulars who dedicated themselves to fitness and martial arts. According to Al-Hamrani, her students “were of a certain age—an age where one gets pregnant—so they changed up a lot. Some would come, leave for nine months, and then return.”
It took Al-Hamrani several years to open the large facility she currently occupies. She did not even consider an official name for the gym until she decided to integrate social media into her business strategy. Within five minutes, she had decided on Flagboxing. “I wanted something powerful and I knew that this would portray a strong woman,” she said.
Over the past couple of years, Saudi Arabia has undergone significant societal changes under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. In 2016, he created the Sports Development Fund and began investing in sports and entertainment. As a result, the ultra-conservative kingdom is now playing host to a wide selection of international events for the first time in its history.
Saudi Arabia’s investment in sports fits into its Vision 2030 campaign, a development proposal that lays out a future in which the kingdom would be free of its heavy reliance on oil by the year 2030. Spurred by their ambitious deadline, the Saudi government is now investing in boxing events, motorsports events, and wrestling shows.
Following his ascendency to the position of Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman elevated Princess Rima bint Bandar al-Saud to the head of Saudi’s sports federation, thus making her the first woman to lead a sports organization in Saudi. This promotion was seen as a coup for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, as Princess Rima was considered to be a beacon of female empowerment in the kingdom.
Of course, much of Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 campaign and the reforms that have come along with it have been enacted primarily as a means to create a more positive international image of Saudi Arabia and to distract attention away from the atrocities still being committed by Bin Salman’s regime. Bin Salman may be eager to put a veneer of progressive Islam on his country, but women and other marginalized groups still face tremendous oppression under his rule. Saudi women are still under the guardianship system, and are only allowed entrance into a select few soccer stadiums. The WWE will be holding an event in the country this month, and no women are on the card.
Still, Al-Hamrani can’t deny the tangible benefits of some of Bin Salman’s reforms. “I am already seeing the positives with the policy shifts that are happening,” Al-Hamrani said. “Thankfully because so much of the changes are related to my field, it is amazing how the country wants to empower women in sports. The government has been backing me and trying to promote my practice a lot. I am excited about the changes that are happening, especially the driving! I see an incredible future for the country and I hope to God that the momentum continues.”
Given the disintegration of some of the conservative cornerstones in her country, Al-Hamrani believes matters will continue to improve for her gym and her students. While she has not faced any opposition since founding her gym, she has yet to obtain a business license due to the endless “red tape” bureaucracy from the Saudi government. However, she believes it is only a matter of time before her gym is licensed and no longer simply a private space underneath a building.
While Al-Hamrani has undertaken many different endeavours since returning to Saudi Arabia 15 years ago, including an event planning company with her sister, her true passion remains empowering Saudi women through sports. When she teaches a new student how to kick or punch, she said, she sees then gradually gain confidence and the mental strength they did not know they had.
“For my ladies—people who have never been exposed to sports in their lives—to pick boxing or kickboxing as their first sport is inspiring,” she said. “That is where I get my inspiration They are unbelievable. They will put themselves in the most intimidating situations and persevere. I love watching it; I love seeing that happen; I love teaching it and to be able to give them something that makes them feel that powerful. I make them feel like they are strong enough to survive and be happy.
“Through them, I’ve found my life path.”