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Breaking the mould: The first Saudi woman to climb Everest

Copyrights: Wikimedia Creative Commons: shrimpo1967

Breaking the mould: The first Saudi woman to climb Everest

The story of Raha Moharrak.

Raha Moharrak grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She is a graphic designer, now based in Dubai. She is a visual communication graduate, having studied at the American University in Jeddah. She is also the achiever of an improbable feat.

Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights has earned the country a bad reputation. When Moharrak was growing up, women and girls were not allowed to drive, ride a bicycle or play sport. The latter has taken its toll on health, with Saudi women suffering disproportionately from cardiovascular diseases, obesity and joint problems.

Despite these challenges, in 2013 Moharrak became the first Saudi woman – and youngest Arab – to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Speaking at the Sporting Chance Forum in Geneva on 30 November, she described the origins of her interest in climbing.

I was refusing to fit the typical mould. I was 25 and had reached the stage where I was expected to go back to Saudi from the UAE. I didn’t want to."

After a 2011 conversation with a girl who was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Moharrak was inspired to do the same. She then had to explain her plan to her parents.

I have lovely parents but I drove them crazy. ‘You have to come back and find a husband,’ they said.”

Moharrak’s response? “You know what? There’s a mountain in Africa I want to climb.”

Her parents came around after a bit of persuasion and she hasn’t looked back. She trained by watching YouTube videos, and climbing desert hills while carrying a backpack full of rocks. She summited Kilimanjaro in November 2011 and several other high peaks over the next two years.

Climbers describe the highest mountains in each of the seven continents as the ‘seven summits’. When Moharrak reached the top of Everest, it was already her sixth. In July 2017, she climbed the final piece of that puzzle, Denali in Alaska.

Climbing became a way for Moharrak to claim her independence, to break the mould. It evolved into a form of self-expression, an avenue to emphasise her desire to change what she doesn’t like about Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards women and sport.

She wanted to take it further and trained herself in public speaking so she can inspire other women by telling her story. She gets many invites, although she would like to receive more from her country of birth.

Saudi Arabia is showing signs of change. In July 2017, the country’s authorities lifted a ban on sport for girls in public schools, adding to the change to legislation that was made for private schools in 2013. Three months later, the government announced that women will be allowed to drive from June next year. Severe restrictions on women’s rights continue, however, including not being permitted to walk in public without a man.

During her presentation at the Sporting Chance Forum, Moharrak described how she fell in love with the notion that she could climb Everest against all odds, coming from a desert country where there was nowhere to train. She pushed her parents and they listened – their love for her was greater than their love of conformity – but many women in Saudi Arabia don’t have that privilege.

Her dream is to see a Saudi woman win an Olympic gold medal in her lifetime. And what about if she has children – what does she hope for in her daughter’s lifetime?

I hope there will not be the need for more firsts.

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Friday, December 1, 2017 - 10:21

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