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Women-only gyms and fitness groups draw Australian Muslims

For the modest, workouts away from the prying eyes of men are a comfort

Dalal Karra-Hassan leads a group of women through a workout program at a Sydney park.

SYDNEY -- Australians like a good workout, as the country's many gyms and joggers on the streets attest. But for some fitness-minded women, unwanted male attention can be a deterrent.

Enter women-only gyms and exercise groups, places where women can go to work up a sweat away from the prying eyes of men. Demand is particularly strong among immigrants, many of whom have, for religious or cultural reasons, a strong sense of modesty.

On a summer day in December, a group of about 20 women, all clad in black long-sleeve T-shirts and long pants, were working out in a Sydney park. Leading the group, called Dolly's Bootcamp, is Dalal Karra-Hassan. Born to a family of Lebanese immigrants, she was forbidden by her father to go to the gym. When she finally set foot in one at age 21, she was hooked.

As a Muslim, however, she felt that it was immoral to attract the gaze of men. So she came up with the idea of an exercise group exclusively for women. That launched her career as an independent fitness trainer in 2013 and now the 29-year-old Karra-Hassan has 160 clients, most of whom are Muslims. She charges a monthly fee of 200 Australian dollars ($144).

Fernwood operates around 70 women-only gyms across Australia, offering programs from dance to personalized exercise routines led by trainers. Muslims make up a growing customer segment for Fernwood.

A Bangladeshi immigrant, who gave her name only as Aisha, said she likes women-only gyms because she can remove her hijab (Muslim attire) when she works out.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the country's Muslim population in 2016 numbered 600,000, up 27% from five years earlier, or 2.6% of the total.

Many of Australia's Muslim women are conservative, but enjoy sports as a way of staying healthy and trim. This has prompted sporting goods manufacturers to develop products with them in mind.

The "burkini," a full-body women's swimsuit designed for Muslim women that attracted controversy when a number of French municipalities banned it, was developed in Australia. It was designed by Aheda Zanetti, who immigrated to Australia as a child.

At one shop where burkinis priced around AU$100 are sold, a clerk said some non-Muslim women buy them, using the loosefitting, full-body suit to protect their skin from the sun and hide the contours of their bodies.

Australia's gym market is worth around $1.8 billion in 2018, according to an estimate by research specialist IBISWorld, less than half the size of Japan's $4.06 billion market in 2017, according to the Japan Productivity Center. But given that Japan's population is five times larger, it appears Australians spend more to stay in shape than do Japanese.

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