German gym caters to Muslim women only

A gym in Germany that caters specially to Muslim women is doing so well after its first year that others want to imitate its combination of modest attire and tough workouts. ( dpa )

All the personal trainers at Hayat in the melting-pot Cologne district of Ehrenfeld are women: Emine and Yasmin give tips or show demurely dressed clients how to work the treadmill and tune in to Turkish pop music over their headsets.

Hayat offers the full range of gym machines, including exercise bikes and devices to encourage firmer thighs.

It also offers the Muslims a prayer room.

This is one gym where you won't see skimpy shorts, figure-hugging leotards and lots of bare skin. Many work out in head-scarves.

Proprietress Emine Aydemir, 39, says on the first anniversary that her no-men-allowed gym has been a business success.

"Many women who wear scarves come here because so many other gyms treat them badly," she explained. "At Hayat, they feel at home and nobody stares at them because of what they are wearing.

"Us Muslimas don't envy one another's bodies. We don't stare at one another and compare our figures. The women take themselves as they are," says Aydemir, who launched Hayat (the name means "life" in Turkish) at the start of April 2007.

Currently she has 350 signed-up customers, 90 per cent of them of ethnic Turkish background. The rest hail from Morocco, Tunisia, Romania, Egypt and a few from Germany. "Their average age is 30," the business owner says.

DSSV, an organization representing fitness and spa-industry employers throughout Germany, says there is only one other gym specially for Muslimas in the country - in the northern city of Hamburg.

DSSV Refit Kamberovic said it was clearly an opportunity for investors in other metro areas in Germany, population 82 million.

Aydemir believes imitators are already in the throes of setting up similar gyms in other cities.

"I've fielded a lot of phone calls from people who ask exactly how they should go about setting up a gym like this," she said. "I tell them the recipe for success is to ban the cult of beautiful bodies and to emphasize health, enjoyment and sharing."

Peak times at Hayat are the mornings and the late afternoons.

Hatice Aydin, a trim 27-year-old who works out every day, explains, "Before I came here, I used to go to another women-only gym, but I was the only one there wearing a head scarf. They were always giving me funny looks.

"I had to go into the toilet cubicles to get undressed and dressed. A lot of German women don't know our etiquette and they were always staring at me if I got dressed in the group changing rooms."

Aydemir says she was taught that Islam forbids exposing any part of the body between the bosom and knees, even to other women.

At Hayat, both the changing rooms and the showers are divided up into cubicles so that this rule of modesty can be followed.

"Even when the girls use our sauna, they wear a towel around themselves," said Aydemir, who loves sport and always used to wonder why she could not find a gym organized around Islamic custom.

Aydemir says customers do not have to be Muslim to sign up to Hayat.

"Lots of cultures and customs co-exist in this town," she said. "We would never send anyone away."

Mothers can drop off their small children at a playroom in the gym, where the trainers keep an eye on them while mama works the weights.

Husbands are not allowed into the gym, even when they are picking up their own wives after a workout. The sign on the door says bluntly, "Access for male visitors prohibited." That includes mailmen and repairmen too.

Gulay, 29, who is training her abdominals on a shiny machine, explains that this is the main reason she chose Hayat.

"I certainly would never work out in a gym with men in the same room," she said. "If there were men here, I'd find that very upsetting. It would not be my kind of space at all."

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