Social change through sports in Saudi Arabia.

Hana is a journalist from Lebanon, who has worked in her home country and in the UAE for the likes of Fortune Arabia and Arabian Business. Naturally curious, she took her English Literature degree into the world of business journalism nine years ago, and found out that she could actually get paid for it. Entrepreneurship, innovation, and the courage to try are at the core of her writing.

Part of the “Women To Watch” featured in the November issue of Inc. Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to millions of highly educated, driven and successful women who stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Here are some of those inventors, change agents, business leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are no longer okay with the status quo. 

As a teenager, Fatima Batook was an emotional eater, she tells us. Trying helplessly to fit in, she turned to food to find comfort. At the age of 18, she had reached an unhealthy weight of 130 kgs.

Things, however, took a turn when she tragically lost her father due to obesity-related health complications. “I felt that I needed to do something. I started making changes in my life. It took me a lot of soul searching to understand my problem.”

After years of trying different fad diets and workout plans, Batook stumbled upon an experience that was about her life and the lives of many other Saudi women.

“I met a spinning trainer. I never thought that I would be sitting there on a stationed bicycle feeling like I am climbing the highest mountains. Working out became more than a weight loss tool…it became my venting space where I could feel free and liberated.”

Her interest in spinning turned to something more than just trying to lose weight.  Batook started traveling around the world attending workshops and taking fitness courses, eventually becoming a qualified spinning instructor and Piloxing trainer.

But her spinning dreams came crashing down not too long after. Batook suddenly found herself stranded when the gym she used to go to was shut down by the Saudi government, which didn’t offer legal licenses for women-only sports centers.

This led the marketing professional to respond by setting up an unlicensed mini-gym on a squash court in her compound, where she started offering spinning classers to her former gym mates.

She also boldly took to social media where she was very vocal about her frustration with the status quo.

Predictably, she was faced with a lot of opposition. “I started receiving hate mail. At some point, all I wanted to do was give up. I was pressured by family and close circles to back down. But just when I was ready to give up, a friend of mine jokingly said that the best way to respond is by wearing T-shirts carrying my name.”

Little did the friend know that her joke would be Batook’s eureka moment, who thought that starting a homegrown women’s active wear brand would be exactly what the situation needed. “I wasn’t interested in the business side of it. By creating a Saudi sports brand by a Saudi woman, I knew I will get their attention.”

In 2012, Batook quit her marketing job and embarked on a journey to launch Tima, named after her childhood nickname. She traveled around China, Vietnam and the US looking for a production factory. “It wasn’t until I visited Brazil that I found what I was looking for in terms of design, fabric, and production. The body shape of Brazilian women is very similar of the women in the Middle East.”

Today, Tima is made in two factories in Brazil that are run by women,  who further employ women in need. “These women are the sole providers for their families. They are divorced or widowed. It is just a perfect fit for me.”

While developing her brand, Batook was also still busy lobbying for laws that offer licenses for women’s health clubs. Eventually, her regional government took notice and invited her to join the province’s Young Saudi Business Women association.

She then used her position as a member of the association to raise the matter with the General President of Youth Welfare Prince Abdullah bin Musaed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, under whose remit it was to issue licenses for men’s health clubs. “We went there with all the supporting documents and made our case. To our surprise, he instantly granted our proposal his approval.”

A month later, she opened her first female-only studio, Studio55 in Al Khobar. Batook now envisions opening 20 additional studios over the next three to five years.

“Fitness and health is such an overlooked aspect of Saudi women’s lives. And this has to change. Women don’t drive cars in Saudi, but they drive everything else. They are phenomenal and they need to be healthy in order to be able to manage their homes, their families, and their jobs.”

Photograph by Gabriela Maj