An Exercise in Freedom: Arab Israeli Women Find Safe Spaces to Work Out Together

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Members of a running group in northern Israel. 'Physical activity is recommended not only for its health benefits.'
Members of a running group in northern Israel. 'Physical activity is recommended not only for its health benefits.'Credit: Fadi Amun

The coronavirus crisis forcing gyms to close has stepped up our awareness of the advantages of walking and running in the open air. But for many Arab women in Israel, outdoor gym classes on the outskirts of their villages are becoming increasingly common for other reasons as well, including the need to create a safe space to engage in physical activity that accords with the community’s societal norms.

“It’s not customary for women to engage in physical activity in public spaces, in plain view,” explains Sally Nabuani, a jogging group instructor from the village of Julis. “You need chaperones and support for women who pursue this. Over the years, things have changed, and there is a growing awareness of the importance of physical activity, with things now picking up. I started walking on the outskirts of our village, and slowly, this developed into professional running,” she says.

This has been developing as a grassroots trend, originating in need. “Walking and jogging in groups on the outskirts of villages and in open spaces is an opportunity for many women who have no other way of engaging in physical activity without it being made accessible in a cultural-sensitive manner,” she says.

Arab women in Israel don’t do enough physical activity, according to a Health Ministry survey in 2016 on the physical activity habits of Israelis over the age of 21.

A running group for Arab Israeli women in the north of the country. 'It’s not customary for women to engage in physical activity in public spaces, in plain view.'Credit: Fadi Amun
Stretching in the woods.Credit: Fadi Amun

The lowest rates of such activity were found among Arab women. Furthermore, whereas in the rest of the population physical activity seems to increase with age, with Arab women it declines. This is accompanied by an increase in diseases that are associated with a lack of physical activity.

If someone starts shooting

In addition to cultural aspects, the Health Ministry data also showed a dearth of sports infrastructure in Arab communities. There is, among other things, a shortage in walking trails in parks and gardens. "The infrastructure for physical activity in Arab villages is lacking,” agrees Nabuani. “I hear this from other women who are in the group with me. The main shortage is in designated and adapted walking trails.”

The groups that gather outside villages usually meet in the early morning or before sunset, for good reason aside from the more pleasant weather.

A running group for Arab women in northern Israel. 'At first there was resistance.'Credit: Fadi Amun

“Pathways around the village are not safe enough or organized, which makes it difficult to walk in the dark. It’s less acceptable for a woman to engage in physical activity around the village at nighttime,” explains Amani Shatiwi from Shibli village. “In contrast, when I’m at work in central Israel, there is a park you can run in and a security patrol that comes by roughly every 20 minutes. Although I’m a stranger in the center, I feel safer walking there than in my village.”

“There were times when I ran alone in open areas, since there are no suitable tracks in the village, and there were times I was worried, with some sections not being safe,” agrees Narmin Hayek from Kafr Yasif. “I therefore decided to run in a group with other women. I feel safer that way,” she says.

In recent years, these concerns have grown with the rising crime rates in Arab communities. “When I walk on the mountain, not everyone there is from my village. Sometimes there are people you don’t know, and they don’t know you, and go figure if someone might start shooting. These are young men with no framework,” says Shatiwi. “I therefore prefer going out with others, mainly family members. It’s very rare for me to go out alone.”

Nabuani also says that increasing crime rates impact the choice of location for physical activity, due to safety concerns for the women taking part in these activities. “Undoubtedly, the increase in violent incidents makes me reconsider where to hold these activities. We’re a big group and that protects us. I really try and choose safe places for us as women, checking locations in advance. It’s a great responsibility,” Nabuani says.”

A woman is participating in a running group for Arab women in northern Israel.Credit: Fadi Amun

According to Hayek, “I take strength from the group. Even in moments of crisis, under the shadow of the violence, we manage to find ways of overcoming our concerns.”

Running against violence and cancer

The beginnings were not easy for their group, Nabuani says. “At first there was opposition to women engaging in physical activity in open spaces, but I persisted. By means of prolonged education we succeeded in forming a diverse, multi-aged group. The social and medical benefits of walking, jogging or any other physical activity overcomes any other consideration,” she says.

Despite the challenges, many women are now joining Nabuani and other such groups across the country. They also often incorporate other social messages into their meetings. “We had a run against violence and another one for increasing awareness of breast cancer,” she relates. “Recently, we’ve starting holding monthly runs holding garbage bags in order to maintain the cleanliness of public areas.”

A Health Ministry spokesman said that “as part of plans to enhance public health in Arab communities, there are also plans to promote physical activity, but it is difficult to break the data regarding participants down along gender lines.”

“Physical activity is recommended not only for its health benefits and contribution to mental wellbeing: it also contributes to one’s feeling of self-worth,” says Dr. Tsafrir Or, a sports and cardiology expert who is in charge of the cardiology intensive care unit at the Galilee Medical Center. “When we talk about the need to prevent heart and circulatory disease, it’s recommended to do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, essentially meaning walking. This causes drastic changes. Beyond blood vessels and the heart, we’re talking about preventing diabetes, high blood pressure and malignant diseases.”

“I live near Shfaram and see with my own eyes how in recent years that more women are walking on the town’s promenade,” Or adds. “The increase in physical activity among women is due to several factors: increased awareness, accessibility of walking, and exposure to social media in which participants share more about their health-related habits. This technological platform is conducive to the formation of walking groups, proving that it’s not as difficult as people think, and that there is no need to violate societal norms while engaging in healthy walking.”

Haneen Shibli and Sheren Falah Saab are part of the Haaretz 21 initiative for promoting voices and stories coming out of Israel’s Arab society.

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