Words and Photos: Dom Granger
Leaving my hotel, I’m a bit nervous. I’m jumping in an Uber on my own, in a country that I don’t know much about, going to a place I also don’t know.
Perhaps it's also because I’m on an assignment that is very dear to me, I’m in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and my destination is called Flagboxing Gym. It is the first and only boxing gym for women in Saudi and I am going there to meet with Halah Alhamrani, the founder and main coach.
I don’t even have an address for the place: “Grey building, wooden door. Come alone, no men allowed in during classes" she tells me over Whatsapp. I’m buzzing with anticipation, clutching my big photo backpack. I must have a worried look as my driver tells me he will wait until I get inside. I ring, the door opens almost instantly.
As soon as I step in the brand new, modern training gym, Halah welcomes me with open arms, literally: I get a big warm hug and I instantly feel like I’m part of the family. Her deep brown eyes are sparkly with energy, and her assertive voice tells me the one thing I was hoping for is true: I’m about to shoot and interview one hell of a strong woman.
Halah started training people in her parent’s house fifteen years ago, over the years through word of mouth, she grew in popularity and ended up opening this gym, Flagboxing, in 2016. Now, with her 22k followers on Instagram and with a plethora of attention from the media, she is on a roll. Even in Riyadh, the conservative capital, women are asking for another gym to open.
"Some have actually left because their significant others were not happy about the empowerment that they felt in them"
“I’ve been approached by so many wonderful, kind women" says Halah. "All these women came up to me, all wearing their black veil, and I couldn’t see their faces except their eyes. But through their eyes, I could see their happiness and the 'wow, we found you!' type of thing."
It has been that way, since the very beginning: “I found out right away that women were so interested in martial arts, combat sports, and in training in kickboxing and boxing." she explains. “I think that for them, they view it as a way to getting over some type of feelings of aggression that they might have, or as a stress relief. That’s really what their initial attraction is towards the sport."
Eventually this feeling towards the sport leads women to feel strong and empowered in themselves.
“Women find their voice here", says Halah. “The ones who have been coming to practice boxing and kickboxing for a while have found that voice and have found their power, their inner power. It’s not something that happens consciously. Over time, you start to feel all this inner strength. And what’s more important to me is that by empowering your body, you're empowering your mind."
Being strong, inside and out. This is exactly how you feel spending even 10 minutes with Halah. “The women find strength here, they do" she says. "Anywhere in the world that would be the case, but in a country where the women need it, it’s necessary. They need to feel empowered with something in their lives, because they haven’t before."
Not everyone is comfortable with this feeling of empowerment however, some women have left the gym after feeling it wasn't right for them. "Some by choice" says Halah, "but some have actually left because their significant others were not happy about the empowerment that they felt in them. I’ve had that before. That’s horrible, a very sad moment. I’ve actually cried because of it before, because I think 'but this is so good for you! Why would they not want that!'
Could it be because they feel threatened? "Yes" Halah affirms, with a sad look in her eyes, "because they feel threatened. Absolutely."
Thankfully, most people that come up to Halah, both Saudi men and women, have been supportive of what she does and while she gets trolls online writing angry or mean comments, she doesn’t let this affect her. “I asked my students and people on Instagram to send me interesting comments" she says, wanting to gather them, to be able to look later and laugh.
"I don’t take things seriously, because I know what I’m doing is right" she explains. "That’s not just because I have the support of the people around me, or the support of the people on social media. It’s because I deeply, deeply believe that what I’m doing is right. And because of that, I’ve developed a shield – Inch’Allah!"
As I sit on the taxi that brings me back to the hotel, I am still buzzing. But this time, it is with amazement, inspiration and gratefulness that life put such powerful women on my path, and the feeling that I had the chance to witness a slice of Saudi history when it comes to women's empowerment.
Massive thanks to Halah Alharamni for letting me join her during those mornings and to Rula, Yasmine, Lina, Sara and Shaima for accepting to have their photo taken.