*Jeddah: *Throwing punches in a gym tucked away from prying eyes, a Saudi female boxing trainer asserts a right long denied to many women in the conservative kingdom -- the right to exercise.
Halah Alhamrani, 41, runs a gym for women called FlagBoxing -- its motto is Fight Like A Girl -- in the western Red Sea city of Jeddah, offering fitness classes such as callisthenics, CrossFit, boxing and kickboxing.
Relying on word-of-mouth publicity in a country where exercising in public is culturally deemed unbecoming for women, Alhamrani is working to empower a generation with little to no exposure to sports.
"On a daily basis, women who have never done sports walk into my class, some with their mothers," Alhamrani told AFP at her gym, which opened in 2016.
"They walk out more confident. Many find their voice. The mothers approach me and say: 'Thank you for offering such an empowering feeling'."
*- Abayas left in the locker -*
At first blush, the gym screams California, not Saudi Arabia .
Wearing headbands and workout attire, women are seen lifting weights, practising sparring techniques and pounding their fists into a punching bag.
Some of them crumple up their abaya gowns and toss them into a locker. They sweat it out over thumping music.
Around 150 women, including Saudis but also other Arabs, share a sense of camaraderie.
A note scribbled on a whiteboard reads: "I can't wait to come back!"
Another banner on the wall reads "BADASS".
"It sometimes feels like a tea party -- without the tea and cookies," Alhamrani jokes.
*- 'My husband is unhappy' -*
Women exercising in public were long a potential target for the kingdom's austere religious police, which has largely been neutered in recent years.
But dramatic social reforms sweeping Saudi Arabia , including a historic decree allowing women to drive from June, have shone the spotlight on figures such as Alhamrani who have long fought isolated battles for basic freedoms.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plan, the government is seeking to jump-start women's sports despite the risk of riling conservatives.
Only four Saudi women featured in the Rio Olympics in 2016 after two were named in the team for London in 2012 -- the first time the Gulf nation sent female athletes to the Games.
The kingdom has since then been granting more prestige to the idea, appointing prominent princess Reema bint Bandar to oversee women's sports in the kingdom in 2016. -APP/AFP