A Jeddah native and the successful owner of Flagboxing Gym, an all-women’s kickboxing studio; we quickly discovered that this larger-than-life character was someone that deserved an incredible amount of respect, and whose positivity, energy, and zeal for life was undeniably infectious.
So, Halah, have you always been active or was it something you picked up on later in life?
Yes, from childhood. My parents made sure we were always on the go and I’m grateful to them for that. We were encouraged to try out all sorts of sports and we’d go to London every summer where my dad owned a polo team, so we’d ride horses every day. I passionately believe that starting kids young in sports is imperative to their future wellbeing, both mentally and physically.
What first drew you to kickboxing?
Out of all the sports I participated in growing up – the list is quite long – martial arts were my favourite from the beginning. I guess I’m just drawn to sports that are extremely competitive, and I’ve realised over the years that I work best on my own. If you’re training alone you have no one to get mad at, there’s no one else to blame if things go wrong, and that’s exactly the sort of pressure I need to make myself better.
How do you think exercising empowers women?
I see it, I see it on a daily basis. I see people walk in here who have no history in sports, I’m talking 30-year-old women who haven’t experienced anything active in their life. They walk in totally shy, unsure of themselves, intimidated; their self-confidence is extremely lacking. And after even just a week of pure dedication, it’s a totally different ball game; they stand more confidently, they come in with a smile on their face, and then they walk out with such amazing confidence. I see it in the kids I teach, too – I had this little girl who on her first day walked in hiding behind her mum, and within a week or two of training she had a whole new attitude. Exercise in general boosts your confidence, makes you feel happier, your energy levels go up and mentally something changes.
And what about kickboxing specifically?
Martial arts are the perfect tool for achieving inner-contentment, especially for women in Saudi. It really does empower you, it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something big – even if your technique isn’t great, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got an outlet and you’re doing something unexpected. Rather than aggression, kickboxing is about feeling empowered and calm and relaxed in your own skin. It’s a release. Release is the word.
I have to say, sometimes I worry that the husbands of these ladies will wonder what’s happening…their wives are coming home with such an unstoppable new attitude!
When you first started, what sort of release did it give you?
Well, I’m extremely ADD. I struggled in school, especially at a time when no one really knew what ADD was, and I found that the only area I excelled in was sports, which became my escape from all of the anxiety caused by my schooling and being misunderstood. Sports were my happy place, and to this day if I have to do anything that requires me to sit down, read or do managerial work, it gives me anxiety big time – I can’t do it, I can’t sit down and be still!
When did you first have the idea for Flagboxing?
When I came back to Saudi after college, wondering what to do with my life. It was actually my mum that said I should train people. So, I started, and that was when I realised there was such a huge demand.
Which brings us on to our next question…kickboxing isn’t necessarily the most obvious form of exercise we’d associate with Saudi women. Was it difficult to tempt people to try it out?
To be honest, from the very beginning, I felt like there was a huge demand. People were craving it. Even now, 15 years later, I get e-mails every day from women saying they really want to do this. I just love the attitude of Saudi women – they’ll try anything and own it.
Do you find practising kickboxing meditative?
I honestly think that if I don’t train, I’ll go crazy. And it’s funny, because most people would watch kickboxing, the motion of it, and wonder how that could be relaxing. But my best days are when I get to the gym and hit pads on my own first – and then the rest of the day is perfect. I need to give myself the attention I need before I can effectively help anyone else, which is true for all aspects of life, I think.
What do you mean when you use the tagline ‘Fight Like a Girl’?
‘Fight Like a Girl’ always stood out to me because I know that women are strong in their own right. We don’t need to be ‘as strong as a guy’, or ‘fight like a guy’. There’s no point in comparing us, we’re women. We’re incredible.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It is 100% the women I train. I always get asked who inspired me, was there one figure like Muhammad Ali, for example, but I’ve never really had that. It is the women around me, my students. Like I said, these are people that have never done anything like this in their lives. They’ve never had to exercise growing up, it’s never been a priority for them and they have no muscle memory, yet they work so hard and achieve so much.
In general, Saudi women are extremely surprising people. You’ll get a total novice come in and completely kill it. I can’t imagine the feeling of having never done something in my life and then walking into a sport like kickboxing and just going for it with everything I’ve got.
In my opinion, those that go out and do something when it doesn’t come naturally to them, when it’s not easy, those are the women that inspire me.
How do you think things are changing for women in Saudi Arabia?
Dramatically. They make you wait a long time, and then all of a sudden, they’ll just announce something like, ‘you can drive’! It’s been insane, a bit of a whirlwind. This last year has been crazy, especially in my industry with Princess Reema heading the sports authority for women. Inshallah, they’re making licenses easier to obtain, they’re really pushing it and promoting it, so it’s a very exciting time.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about yourself on this journey?
To be more patient, and that we’re not all the same. I’m open to more criticism, because with criticism comes education.
Finally, if every Saudi or Arab woman in the world read this feature, what would you want to say to them?
Don’t be scared to try new things. Put yourself out there, put yourself in situations in which you might be uncomfortable, because through that you learn. You’ll learn things about yourself and you’ll learn things that might change your life.
"We don’t need to be ‘as strong as a guy’, or ‘fight like a guy’. There’s no point in comparing us - we’re women. We’re incredible. "