The dignity of the body

If you were trying to get me huffing and puffing, you might want to try quoting Saudi clerics. It usually works; especially when they claim that a woman who likes to exercise is shameless.

It was reported last month that “Saudi women could see their private sports clubs and gyms closed down” for lack of government licensing. The news story quoted businessman Bader Al-Shibani, who tried to open a women’s gym in Jeddah: “I ran into a stone wall at every turn,” he said. “Every department I visited denied that they had the authority to give permission to establish a women’s club. In the end, I just abandoned the project.”

Good for him to try, and it goes to show that not every single man in that notoriously female-unfriendly country is a cretin. Some of them are doing their best, even if most of us in the West think their small improvements are woefully inadequate. For one thing, where I live we don’t need government permission to run a sports club – and we mix genders any way we like, with some clubs reserved for women while others (including the one where I train) mix men, women, and children without even thinking about it. But that turns out to be a relatively minor point.

What really gets my blood boiling in this story is the clerics, who “have condemned the gyms and clubs as ‘shamelessness’ and warned that women would be tempted to leave their homes and neglect their husbands and children.” Forgive my French, but what indécrottable rot.

I’ve got news for you, cleric dudes: You’ve got it completely backwards. As I’ve written elsewhere, far from being places of shamelessness, gyms are actually places of shame. I am routinely humiliated there myself. Some days I can’t do proper push-ups to save my life. Other times, I need a pulley to do leg raises the way they’re meant to look. It is only rarely that I manage a decent jump-spinning sidekick, and I’ve been working at it for years. That sense of shame is a good thing; it makes me want to work harder and discipline both body and mind to achieve better results and become a marginally better person.

Oh yeah, because that is what exercise is all about. It’s even written on the wall: “My goal is to become the best person I can be.” It is very much in line with preserving and protecting the dignity of the person. Unless you’re, say, Cher, your body isn’t something you bought. It was given to you. Some believe God gave it to them; others thank Mother Nature or just Darwin for theirs. Presumably Saudi clerics hold the first view but it doesn’t matter here. What matters is that it was given to you and you are responsible for looking after it and keeping it in reasonable working order.

Oh, sure, not everybody wants to work out in a gym or sweat buckets in a dojo like I do. And not everybody can; injuries and illness sometimes impose limits. That’s fine. You can run, walk the dog in the park, garden, bicycle, ski, climb mountains, take your wheelchair out for a spin or go swimming. How you care for your body is your business. But not whether. It is your responsibility to do so; I have yet to encounter a philosopher who says we have a sacred right, or solemn duty, to sit on the couch eating junk food for 50 years straight. Until these clerics said it about women.

Another thing the clerics get completely wrong is the part about women neglecting their home and family. I don’t know much about day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia, but I can tell you that there’s nothing like a great workout at the end of a long day to get rid of the stress, irritation, and fatigue and make me feel happy, cheerful, and energetic again. Far from encouraging me to neglect my other duties and occupations, exercise helps me accomplish them better. Because (repeat after me) exercise helps me become the best person I can be.

You don’t want to take undue pride in your physical envelope, for you are more than your body. And remember, if yours is especially nice, it was given to you, not created by you. But physical fitness matters. Mens sana in corpore sano, they used to say. And they were right.

So good luck to any cleric who’d try to prevent me from entering my dojo. My palm strikes are a thing of beauty, if I say so myself.

Brigitte Pellerin writes, exercises and practices martial arts in Ottawa, Canada.


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