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Saudi Arabia has decided to introduce something new in its gender-segregated public schools - physical education for girls. The decision came last month on advice from the government advisory board called the Shura Council, and it is opposed by hardliners. It was only two years ago the Shura lifted a ban on girls' PE in private schools. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from the Saudi capital Riyadh that many women are cheering the ruling.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Saudi Arabia sent its first female competitors to the Olympics only in 2012, after years of sending men. That was a breakthrough. Now girls in public schools can have sports and exercise programs just like the boys. That's also a big deal, says Jowhara al-Theyeb.
JOWHARA AL-THEYEB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a new - it's a new thing, and I really like it. And I wish I was in school so I can have that.
AMOS: Al-Theyeb is only 23. She's just out of college. But she already has an important job. She's a recruitment manager for Gloworks. It's a private company that recruits women for employment, matching their resumes with job openings in companies across the country. Every time her team places a woman in a job, there's this office ceremony.
AL-THEYEB: Once we hire any woman in the workplace, we hit the gong.
(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)
AMOS: So you do that every time?
AL-THEYEB: Yeah, every time we hire a woman.
AMOS: She's hit that gong thousands of times in the four years Gloworks has been in operation. Now Gloworks has expanded to Glowfit - the first licensed fitness center for women in Riyadh.
UNIDENTIFIED SPIN CLASS INSTRUCTOR: We always start with no resistance - very basic, very easy.
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AMOS: In this gleaming new gym, spinning class is just one of the activities offered here. There's a smoothie bar and a prayer room, in keeping with Saudi culture. Meet Nejda Nejm. Her husband founded Glowork. She says it was her idea to open the gym. She's thrilled by the new education policy for mandatory sports and exercise for Saudi girls.
NEJDA NEJM: I think it's a big deal because this is a way of actually acknowledging publicly that women need to get the same amount of treatment or care that males do.
AMOS: In Saudi Arabia, obesity is skyrocketing, which leads to a long list of health problems, including diabetes. Numbers are highest for women and rising for children and teens. It's an epidemic. The new sports policy can lead to better health, says Nouf al-Musehel, a personal trainer who now has a full-time job here.
NOUF AL-MUSEHEL: It is, it is, it is a huge dramatic change and it's beautiful. It's just beautiful to watch the change in Saudi.
AMOS: Not everyone agrees. Religious conservatives say exercise for girls is Westernizing. It has no place in the kingdom and could lead to adultery and prostitution. But ask Hoda al-Helaissi if sports for girls is un-Islamic, and she scoffs. Health is just one benefit.
HODA AL-HELAISSI: It's a question of also - what is the saying? - a healthy mind and a healthy body, it's a necessary thing.
AMOS: Al-Helaissi has been part of a revolutionary change herself. She made history last year when 30 women were appointed to the Shura Council, a government advisory board chosen by the king.
AL-HELAISSI: It's like us when we first went into the council. You think it wasn't done with a lot of opposition? That first year was very difficult, very, very difficult.
AMOS: In what way? What happened?
AL-HELAISSI: Because you get this hate mail on your private mail for some reason, Twitter was talking about us, Facebook - everywhere, everywhere that we were like - but they got used to it. Society got used to the idea.
AMOS: The council went on to make the recommendation to change physical education for girls. She says the conservatives will accept this, too, when they see that their daughters are benefiting as much as their sons. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.
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