Mats rolled tightly under their arms, a group of women walk to a secluded Tripoli beach for a seaside yoga session to escape tensions in conflict-stricken Libya.
Under the watch of a solitary police car, each Thursday the 25aspiring yogis begin limbering up, their bright gym attire outlined against the crumbling concrete security compound that forms the backdrop to their open-air studio.
“Yoga releases the pressure we live under. Here I can escape reality,” one participant, Mawadda, tells AFP before the afternoon class.
“Here I feel free.”
Tripoli residents have endured near-constant unrest since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Libya has since been thrown into disarray, with warring armed groups and rival political factions vying for control and ISIS establishing a bastion in the oil-rich North African country.
Thousands of Libyans have fled the unrest but for those left behind, daily life has been significantly curtailed and frequent clashes in the capital mean it is often too dangerous to exercise outside.
And with a conservative Muslim society implicitly imposing restrictions on how one should dress and behave, Libyan women are especially short of viable pastimes.
Abir Ben Yushah, who operates an exercise studio at her family-owned gym, struck upon the idea of yoga classes after talking to other women.
“We understood that women need hobbies and a change after the war,” she tells AFP.
“After Zumba courses, Arabic and Indian dance classes, and fitness programs, we decided to start yoga on the beach.”
Eyes narrowed in concentration, the students -- hair covered with headscarves, sun hats or baseball caps -- closely mimic the poses held by Abir.
Four women sit on nearby rocks, observing and commenting on the class.
A few meters away, the luxurious villas of the Ragata compound once used by Libya’s expatriate oil worker community sit abandoned, some vandalized, like those of Qaddafi’s sons.
‘Try before you judge’
For many Libyan women who enjoy Italian fashion and like listening to music, practicing yoga was nothing new.
The novelty, however, was to do it on a beach in broad daylight without upsetting conservative members of the society.
“To be honest, I was a bit scared about the reputation of our club and that people would reproach us for being more free and open than necessary,” Abir says.
“I do worry about the reactions of husbands and fathers but at the same time people need new things and new activities just like the rest of the world.”
Libyan women, like many others in conservative Arab countries, have respect for religious and societal codes but this has not kept them from adopting the latest trends.
They also enroll in universities, work alongside male colleagues, drive themselves and travel abroad if they can afford it.
“Practicing yoga on the beach is, for us, proof that we want to change our lifestyle,” says Mawadda.
Abir admits that attendance at her first class was low.
“Women came to see how the session went and to make sure it was safe,” she said, adding that they felt reassured when they saw the police car, the absence of men and that the place was secluded.
Iman is one of those who has been won over by the yoga class, which she sees as less about breaking social boundaries than keeping body and mind in shape.
“Why should I be worried? Will commandos arrive by sea?” she chuckles. “Let them come! We are all here!”
Abir admits that not everyone will agree, but to those still reluctant she says: “Try before you judge.”SHOW MORE