DOHA, Qatar, Aug. 6, 2010 -- This week Doha municipality has instructed Fitness First that male and female members are no longer permitted to train side by side. Women will also have to forgo their sessions with their favourite male personal trainers and work out in a segregated smaller, less-equipped gym within the changing rooms.
The fitness classes will also be split, vastly reducing the possible training options. But women are still permitted to use the existing prayer room, alongside men. There will be no refunds or compensation offered.
Some observers believe the gym faces a huge loss in customers to other hotel gyms in the city, which fall under a different licensing laws and therefore aren't subject to the decree.
"It is a temporary situation and we are working on an alternative, better solution for females but we must comply with the orders of the municipality," explained Dean Wantenaar, Doha general manager of Fitness First.
The small state of Qatar borders the very conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There is a certain deja-vu of what happened in Saudi Arabia last summer in all of this. The Saudis clamped down on women's gyms and only clubs linked to medical groups can now get licenses and all others are being closed. Saudi women launched an online campaign protest called "Let Her Get Fat." In the Kingdom, physical education in schools is banned and clerics have issued religious prohibitions on female participation in sport.
The region has one of the world's highest rates of diabetes and obesity. One has to bear in mind that in 50 degrees (122F) of oppressive summer heat, the only place to exercise is inside. And due to religious and cultural traditions, it is impossible to train outside, given that a woman cannot expose her arms or legs. In the capital Doha, there is little pavement. This is a place made for big SUVs. Ladies don't totter along in Manolos in this desert city.
Mixed Opinions Among Gym Members
Qatari national and Doha Fitness First member Lolwa Al Mohannadi says that not enough attention is paid to the women members and ris all too aware of the difficulties of exercising for many muslim females.
"We do need a ladies' gym because it is too hot to exercise in my abaya. When I have to leave the ladies' gym, I even have to put my abaya on over my sports kit to walk down the corridor to get to a class because they haven't provided us with the separate entrance they promised," she said. Her other gripes include the inadequate numbers of women staff, lack of weights available and the greater volume of women now battling to get on the treadmills.
A disgruntled American, Enya Macauley, says: "I didn't sign up for this, I wanted all the facilities and being restricted to the female gym is breaking their contract." However, another member who didn't want her named used says: "Wouldn't you expect this? We are in a Muslim country after all, it comes as no surprise to me, in fact I was surprised we could train together in the first place."
Qatar is set to send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time when they are held in London in 2012 -- which will leave Saudi Arabia as the only major country still to exclude women from taking part in the Games. The state is also bidding to host the first-ever FIFA World Cup in the Middle East in 2022 with a vision to unite the Arab world and drive better understanding of the region globally through the world's biggest sports event.
But one cannot help but wonder how the Qatari women will train to compete on an international stage with the facilities they're allowed to use.
The writer of this story, who lives in Doha, has asked ABC News that her name not be disclosed.