Fatima Batook is the leading authority figure in Saudi Arabia's burgeoning Spinning® industry. Not only is she a pioneering female in the space, she's cultivating a community of happy, inspired ladies and proudly watching them blossom through a new love for fitness. Fatima worked with a passionate team from the United States for over a year via email and Skype to recently open Studio55, Saudi's first women-only Spinning® studio. In addition to overseeing the studio Fatima also runs award-winning clothing line, Tima Love Life. We spoke exclusively with Fatima to celebrate the opening of Studio55 and her trailblazing health and fitness platform pushing for the empowerment of Saudi Arabian women.
When and how did your love for fitness (and Spinning® in particular) grow?
“I was 18 when I was personally facing health and weight issues. I was morbidly obese for my height and age; doctors told me I was prone to diabetes and heart problems. Their advice was to go to the gym. I saw a great big poster on the gym’s billboard saying Spinning® burned 800 calories per hour and I thought this was my solution! I went into this intimidating room of bikes, sat on a bike for 10 minutes, then decided to never ever come back! Next day I pushed myself and attended 15 more minutes, till one day I finished a whole class. And that was my ‘turning point,’ that’s when everything made sense to me. Health and weight management was hard work that depended on progressive and consistent efforts like Spinning®. In 2007 I became a certified instructor to share my new passion with everyone.”
You tried opening a small indoor cycling studio several years ago but were forced to close it. What kept your dream for a new location alive?
“I actually never tried to open one on my own, I was teaching part-time at the only Spinning® affiliate center in my city, Al-Khobar. I never even thought I would want to open my own place. The thought came to me only when the place I was teaching at closed down for legislative reasons, because in Saudi Arabia at that time we didn’t have the legal license to operate a women’s health club. It was closed down in November 2013 with little effort from their management to re-open; I was on a mission to get the license not only for Studio55 but also for all health clubs for women across the country. Being a member of Young Saudi Business Women of Eastern Province, we had raised this matter with all the supporting documents of why we needed this and presented to the minister who issued licenses for men’s health clubs, and that’s when we had our triumph and received approval that all women can have a license to open a fitness/health club.”
How did you get your new project, Studio 55, off the ground?
“Studio55 was born out of three things: 1) Legal circumstances that forced the only health club I could teach Spinning® at to be shut down. For two years till Studio55 was open, I was training women from private properties (homes and recreational centers) till we were able to get the studio up and running, but it didn’t stop women from training and didn’t stop me from pursuing the dream of opening up soon to all women. 2) Fate! God put me at the right time at the right place. I was presented with a business opportunity from a male entrepreneur who witnessed the idea of cycling studios being a success in the US and wanted to bring the model to his home country, and today he’s my business partner at Studio55. Both of us have a marketing and branding background and we had the right vision for Studio55 to make it a reference for women all over Saudi Arabia for Spinning® and fitness. With that vision in mind we started from zero building a brand, a concept, interior and systems that go along with it. I have to say that Barbara Hoots (owner of Atlanta-based company, Indoor Cycle Design) played a huge role in directing us the right way and giving us the knowledge and know-how. 3) Passion drives every single move I do and bringing that passion throughout the studio was my goal. Instructors are the heart of the studio; with recruiting and training being scarce in Saudi Arabia they were our top priority. We had all the instructors fly to the World Spinning® & Sport Conditioning conference in Miami to meet, engage and train with the masters. After a month from soft opening I can say our passion spills over to the members and the whole environment in the studio. It’s a never-ending chain of positive reactions.”
I noticed a class you have called “Bokwa.” What is that exactly?
“Women always love to have fun everywhere, but especially here in Saudi! Women are always finding an excuse to party and Bokwa is a great and healthy way to do so. Bokwa is an intense cardio workout combing elements of African dance, kickboxing, light boxing and step. It’s a unique dance fitness workout using letters and numbers as placement combined with the use of hand signals and American Sign Language. It’s refreshing and builds strength and endurance driven by the pulsating rhythmic beats of African, Latin, popular dance and house music. Bokwa is an innovative dance workout that’s an abundance of fun and does not feel like a workout!”
Can you recall a heartwarming story (or stories) that stand out to you from the women you’ve instructed over the years?
“I have so many touching stories. One of the stories I always share is one I had encountered with an older female who was very traditional and religious. Just to give you a background, Saudi fitness instructors were not very popular 10 years ago and may be seen as a degrading job but today we’ve been gaining a lot of respect and many, many Saudi women are getting the training to become instructors. So I was faced with some negativity at times but it was with one lady who was against me from day one assuming I came from a background of “liberating” women in the incorrect way, “stepping” out of the cultural norms and traditions, so she wouldn’t attend any of my classes. She always put in a complaint to management that I was inappropriately dressed for a Saudi instructor while other instructors were fine because they weren’t Saudi! This was till one day when she didn’t have an option but to attend my class, which was a Spinning® ride dedicated to overcoming climbs as challenges in life. I shared a lot of my own personal challenges throughout the ride and that was her moment. That was the moment where everything changed to her, all the stereotypes she had in her mind, all the walls she had built, and all her guards dropped and faded away! After the class she came to me for the first time ever and thanked me, then opened up her heart to me with her personal challenges in life and apologized for judging me the way she did. That was a successful turning point because we came from different backgrounds but had so much similarity. As much as she was judging me I was too, due to her appearance and different cultural background. She actually inspired me to be more open to every type of woman because at the end of the day, we are one. Today she’s one of the most active women supporting Studio55 and myself.”
Why is your vision for female fitness health clubs so needed in Saudi Arabia at this time?
“It is needed, indeed! For many reasons, one of them being that obesity is higher in women than men and lifestyle-related diseases are increasing causing early deaths amongst women in Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi need an outlet to vent and let go because they are super women—they are full-time mothers, full-time daughter, full-time sisters and full-time wives, plus they have jobs and many other cultural and social commitments. We have a huge responsibility as women in the family and we don’t live independently, therefore we are always in need by someone at some point of time. Female fitness clubs are a place where they can dedicate well-earned time to themselves and free themselves from all the worries and stress of their daily lives, reenergize themselves and become stronger to take on the rest of their days.”
In the Western world we’re all too familiar with the daily restrictions placed on the lives of Saudi women. What we don’t hear about enough is the sisterhood you share. Can you talk about how you empower each other?
“Women around the world have the same needs, dreams, ambitions and aspirations. One thing we’re blessed with in this part of the world is that even with our busy lives we have strong bonds, we stand for each other, support each other and connect with each other on many different levels. I’m blessed to see this first hand at the studio; the bond women have between each other is so strong and built purely on unconditional relationships. If anyone needs anything, there will be 20 women standing right by her side.”
What are your long-term plans for Studio 55?
“The plan is simple: open twenty studios by 2020 and inspire women to come together and have their own space to evolve and be more.”