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International Yoga Day 2018: Story of the Woman Who Brought Yoga to Saudi Arabia After 20-Year Struggle

By: Eram Agha

Edited By: Sumedha Kirti


Last Updated: June 21, 2018, 12:06 IST

Saudi Arabia's first certified Yoga instructor being conferred Padma Shri by President Kovind (File photo)

Saudi Arabia's first certified Yoga instructor being conferred Padma Shri by President Kovind (File photo)

It may be surprising for many, but not really for the ‘Yogacharini’ as her family has always been the torchbearer of change. Nouf’s father, athlete Mohammad Marwaai, had brought martial arts to Saudi Arabia over 45 years ago.

New Delhi: Slowly driving through the alley of stereotypes, the Saudi Arabian women are all set to occupy wider roads, both metaphorically and literally. But before the ladies set out on roads from June, their sister has already succeeded in making a positive dent in the kingdom’s rigid system.

After a battle of nearly 20 years, Nouf Marwaai was finally announced as Saudi Arabia’s first certified yoga instructor.

It may be surprising for many, but not really for the ‘Yogacharini’ as her family has always been the torchbearer of change. Nouf’s father, athlete Mohammad Marwaai, had brought martial arts to Saudi Arabia over 45 years ago. But her struggle against the extremist forces was far too straining, keeping in mind the not-too-women-friendly image of her country.

Lauding her efforts and struggle, President Ram Nath Kovind recently conferred Padma Shri on Marwaai for popularising the ancient Indian practice in her country.

In a detailed interview, she tells News18.com about the ‘progressive reforms’ of Mohammad Bin Salman’s regime, especially with regards to empowering women and Yoga in Saudi Arabia.

1) Today Yoga enjoys the status of a legalized sport in Saudi Arabia, could you tell us what all went into it?

It was a journey of trials. Two decades ago I was the only Saudi Yoga teacher, and the only one who spoke about Yoga publicly in 2004. I trained thousands of people and many yoga teachers, who are now teaching in many cities of Saudi and other Arab countries. It was new and unknown to many people and authority here, I approached them regarding yoga legalization in 2006 but it wasn’t really fruitful.

The changes started happening in this regard only in 2015. That’s when my greatest battle was going on with some extremists who opposed women sports and yoga. It was only when the UN declared the 21st of June as the Yoga Day, after the efforts of the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi that we celebrated our first and official yoga public celebration in Jeddah. This gave us the ability to publicize at least this big event on yoga annually.

Every time we get great exposure and publicity, the Consulate General of India then started supporting many other yoga events with us - the Arab Yoga Foundation.

Things improved further – when in February 2017, I met Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, she was the Deputy President of Saudi Arabia’s Sports Authority for Planning and Development. She is the key player in the government.

In June 2017, the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia gave us the support for the Yoga Day Celebration as there was a campaign for #active_ramadan. The general sports authority were surprised to see the huge turn-out for Yoga.

2) When you started off in 2006 were there myths around Yoga and Islam? Can one be a Muslim and a Yogacharya or Yogacharini?

Yes, we can be both! There is a myth regarding yoga and religion generally, not only Islam. But like any ancient practice, it was born into a certain time and civilization. All sports started in a certain time and place carried some stamp regarding that time or background. Now the health and wellness benefits of yoga for humanity cannot be ignored. It’s totally unfair and ignorant to fight such a great health and well-being system and a systemic interesting sport using religion and other excuses just because we are intolerant to a certain ideology.

3) What were your challenges when you started to practice yoga?

There were many challenges, but the only thing in the beginning was, people asked few questions if it was Buddhist. The only objections and oppositions were campaigns some extremist ideology followers were running against yoga by their own. Many sports were not legalized anyways till 2017 especially women sports. For the same reason that extremists were opposing many changes but this is not the case anymore.

4) How have things changed for Saudi women? We have heard a lot about the ban on women drivers have been removed.

Women are really interested and excited to get rid of the drivers or save taxi money. The actual date for this new rule to be effective is June 2018. For women empowerment it’s very important for women to be able to move, go to work, attend meetings and manage their own schedule and time by being able to move. They should not be dependent on another person for transportation, which limits the chances or cost them extra.

In the absence of a proper public transportation and availability of taxi services only the cost is high for women plus time management can be difficult. Not every woman can have a driver and a car to drop and pick her. Before cab services it was even harder and due to transportation cost and issues, it was not feasible for women to avail the opportunities of employment.

Women were usually limited to teaching and very limited jobs years ago, but now women are working in sales, open shops, food trucks, security jobs and many other fields with no discrimination. In this changing scenario, the ban lift is welcome!

5) On your travel have you come across people who hold myths about Saudi women?

People abroad think Saudi women are totally backward and we Saudi women are very abused and deprived of any right, and that is not true! If it was true how did I then teach and do all the media shows and many businesses in past 15 years? We always had a window to breath. The changes were slowly happening already. It’s just that the Crown Prince has sped up the process to the maximum.

Things started changing for Saudi women in the regime of the late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. He changed many things for women’s life and gave her so many rights. After that king Salman Bin Abdulaziz and the Crown Prince, Mohamad Bin Salman started a huge campaign for women empowerment.

6) Who are the Saudi women you admire fighting for equality in Saudi society?

We Saud women have been working and doing our best with or without equality and our works proved our abilities. One of the Saudi women I love and admire is my friend Leena Almaeena who is now a royal council member, she is the founder of Jeddah United Basketball team for girls and the first to start Basketball for women years ago when sports for women were very limited, her team was growing and their passion and commitment was unlimited, now with all the improvement in the field of women sports they are just flourishing. My son is playing now in their boys’ team.

7) What are your views on the young crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman? He was criticized for jailing princes to stamp out corruption, which he defended by saying that they were in line with the law.

Mohammad Bin Salman is a very inspiring, genuine and courageous leader and we are as youth inspired by him and his motivated character and work to change the life of Saudis. Whatever he is doing to tackle corruption and fight it was said to be done with transparency and publicity.

8) He has said that a generation has been the victim of ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam - and seeks change it. How far do you agree with him?

Yes, this happened in 1979 when a terrorist attack happened in Makkah and before that in 1960s many Muslim brotherhood members came to Saudi Arabia running away from Egypt. They hijacked our system in all levels.

Saudi Arabia before that had a very normal life and wasn’t this strict. We had cinemas in Jeddah, we had sports for girls in school, music and concerts and normal decent dresses women and men wore. The 30 last years were only the play of extremist and fanatics and attack on our educational and social life. MBS mentioned this very clearly in many media platforms and promised to change it immediately. The change already took place and its happening.

9) After legalizing Yoga what next from ancient Indian heritage?

In Saudi Arabia the late King Abdullah ordered for regulating alternative medicine since 2011 and started the National Center for Alternative & Complementary Medicine and am hopeful Ayurveda will soon make its way into the mainstream of alternative medicine in Saudi Arabia like all other Gulf Countries, especially with the big number of Saudis who travel regularly to India only for Ayurvedic Treatment and the demand is growing bigger by the day.

10) What are your views on the Indian leadership - the Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s personality and his foreign policy is very impressive. I came to know more about him because of his work for the Yoga Day recognition by the UN and I am surprised that many yogis and people in Saudi Arabia know him and aware of his work and character.

Being connected to both Indian and Saudi sides for almost 10 years I can say that Narendra Modi ji has changed the way middle-east looks at India and the Indian administration. The international campaign of the Yoga Day celebrations in my opinion is the biggest yoga campaign. I met him right after the photo session after the reception of the award in the Rashrapathi Bhavan, he was greeting the awardees and I was waiting behind him. He complimented me for my work.

first published:June 21, 2018, 12:02 IST
last updated:June 21, 2018, 12:06 IST