I was home in Kentucky this weekend for my sister’s baby shower. Twenty women together, celebrating the birth of another female (yes, I’m going to have a little niece!). As I gazed around the room, which was decorated appropriately in pink, pink, pink, I thought about what kind of world my niece will be living in. She will be free to do as she pleases and nurtured by my sister and my family to be exactly who she wants to be.
Because my thought process is constantly linking seemingly unrelated topics together, I then thought about a recent interview I did for our digital publication the Chronicle Connection. I spoke with up-and-coming show jump rider, Dalma Malhas, a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian woman who was the first female to represent her country in any sort of Olympic Games. And she won the bronze medal to boot at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
The more I learned about Malhas, the more obvious it became just how influential her mother’s support was in helping her get to where she is today. Speaking with her mother, Arwa Mutabagani, was enjoyable and inspiring. I was lucky to be able to tell her daughter’s story, and, as a result, I feel strongly about sharing Mutabagani’s tale as well, because it, just like Malhas’, is changing a nation.
Born to a “dominating” Saudi Arabian father and an Italian mother, Mutabagani was raised Muslim.
“We were moderate Muslims. My mother brought me up in a way that I would respect the tradition and the culture,” said Mutabagani. “I was brought up traditionally, like Saudi Arabian girls at that time.”
Although Mutabagani says that Saudi Arabian culture is changing “slowly, slowly” in women’s favor, much of what girls and women can do in public is still limited. Among other restraints, women must wear abayas to cover their clothes, males (preferably a family member) must accompany them when outside the house, and they cannot drive. Additionally, girls and women are strongly discouraged from participating in physical activities.
Islamic law does not prohibit women from exercising, but there are an abundance of conservative congregants who argue that being active in public would require women to change into workout clothing, and disrobing outside the home is considered to be against good moral code. As a result, more than 60 percent of Saudi Arabian women are plagued with obesity, according to a 2007 study titled “World’s Fattest Countries” executed by Forbes.
“It’s thought that women should not exercise or do sports,” Mutabagani explained. “Among other reasons, there is still an extremist mentality that a woman should be at home and take care of the kids, and that’s it. It’s this perception that has to start to change.”
It has been Mutabagani’s personal mission to open doors for women in Saudi Arabia. After graduating from King Abdul Aziz University, she founded Trio Ranch Country Club in 1990, one of the first riding schools in Saudi Arabia. A show jumper herself, Mutabagani saw Trio Ranch as a way for children to start an appropriate riding education. Her daughter learned to ride there, and because girls aren’t permitted to compete (in any physical competitions, not just equestrian) in Saudi, Malhas would often organize mock horse shows between herself and the other young girls.
Mutabagani pursued her own professional show jumping career, but it was difficult to do so, as getting competitive exposure required her to travel outside Saudi Arabia. When she could, she went to Italy or England to train.
The Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation was in its beginnings when Mutabagani started her ranch, and though she could not compete in the shows, and the focus was on men, she was still present on the scene.
“Before, they were not used to seeing women around. I was one of the first women to get into the sport in Saudi Arabia. They were shocked and didn’t know how to react,” Mutabagani said. “They eventually got used to me being around. Now people are more accustomed to seeing a woman as a part of the working society.”
Her active participation in nurturing the growth of equestrian sport in her country was officially recognized in April of 2008 when the King of Saudi Arabia appointed her to the Saudi Olympic Committee. She became the first female member of the Saudi Olympic delegation and sits as a board member for the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Foundation.
“I was really shocked [about being appointed]. We’re in a man’s world here,” Mutabagani explained. “The equestrian federation is the only national federation that the king appoints its members, because the king has a huge passion for horses. So he knows I had done so much in the history of equestrian [in Saudi Arabia], and I had the knowledge. I thought, ‘All these years I’ve worked weren’t for nothing. Someone is appreciative of what I’ve done.’ ”
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Mutabagani’s efforts to better life for Saudi Arabia’s women started at home. While she was blazing a bridle path for females and equestrians alike, she was also a single mother raising a daughter, and a talented, athletic daughter at that.
Having learned from her own life, she knew that for Malhas to have the chance to fulfill her potential as a rider, they would have to leave Saudi Arabia. So when her daughter was 12, Mutabagani packed up to join her mother in Rome, Italy. She would continue her management of Trio Ranch from afar.