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Everest to NYC: Female Saudi mountain-climber scales new summits Open in fullscreen

Sophia Akram

Everest to NYC: Female Saudi mountain-climber scales new summits

Raha Moharrak admires the view of the High Himalaya [Shirzanan]

Date of publication: 6 April, 2017

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Interview: Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to climb Everest, speaks to The New Arab about her work to smash stereotypes, and to advance women's rights through sport.
Raha Moharrak, the renowned mountain climber who was the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, often tells an endearing story of how her first major climb - Mount Kilimanjaro - began.

She had to ask her father, and her father gave an unequivocol "no". Devastated, yet relentless, Moharrak pursued the issue, penning her father a long email, agonisingly waiting for a response.

After several days, three short heart-warming phrases were sent back:

"You're crazy. I love you. Go for it."

The words changed her life. And Moharrak has used her achievements ever since to act as an ambassador for her countrywomen.

Advocating access to sport for girls in school, and sport for health in Saudi Arabia, Moharrak is one of a line-up of outstanding female role models attending the eighth annual Women in the World Summit in New York City between 5-7 April.

With Hillary Clinton conducting her first post-election interview here, the summit is also presenting "powerful new female role models whose personal stories illuminate the most pressing international issues".

Before the summit kicked off, The New Arab met with Moharrak to talk about her life and work.
Raha Moharrak using an ice axe
during her Everest climb [Shirzanan]

You're an ambassador for Shirzanan, an advocacy organisation that works to advance Muslim women's rights through sports and to break down some of the barriers they face to participate in sport.

As a female Muslim athlete what are some of the barriers you have faced?

"Of course, the main one is the cultural barrier. I come from Saudi Arabia, where it's not typical for a girl to be athletic, let alone a mountain climber.

"It's very far from [society's] grasp of what a Saudi girl is. Which, of course, also meant my that of father and my family initially."

When did this all start for you?

"I've always been very sporty. I've done it my whole life. The first thing I did was learn how to swim."

When sports aren't really encouraged among girls in school, was there an infrastructure with which to train?

"Because sports aren't really viewed as a female thing, it's not popular in schools. Personally, I've always been very energetic and very curious. So even though I didn't have these things available, I still wanted them and I still asked my parents - 'oh, I want to learn horse riding', or I want to do this and that.

"I didn't just hear 'no you can't do sports because you're a girl' and say 'OK'. I asked 'Why not? Why can my brother play football but I cannot learn horse riding?' Maybe the difference is my own personality, whereas others may see a barrier and stop.

"But I was fortunate enough to have understanding parents and we had a big house with a big garden. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult to facilitate as a child. As an adult, as soon as I went to college [in Sharjah, UAE], I threw myself into everything."

What has your advocacy work involved?

"I've been talking to as many people as I can - basically! Trying to change mentalities, whether its girls' schools at home or advocacy groups.

"I recently spoke at the Human Rights Watch gala dinner in Frankfurt, for instance. I try to collaborate with Shirzanan as much as possible. They are working to highlight inequality in sports, which is really overshadowed by a lot of other things - in terms of media coverage on the region - like driving.

"But something as simple as sport should be enjoyed by the masses rather than an elite group of people."

Does this affect both men and women?

"In general sports back home needs revamping in many aspects - but more so for girls than boys. Because boys do have the luxury of being able to play football in public, as opposed to girls, who can't.

"So, it's another layer of difficulty. For boys, it's about inspiring the child to do sport. For girls, even if she was inspired she would not be able to compete."

An athlete is an athlete whether in a bikini or a burka

On the subject of competition, the wearing of the hijab in competitive sports has been in the news recently. FIBA [the Federation of International Basketball] has a ban in place, citing safety reasons. What is your take on all that?

"An athlete is an athlete whether in a bikini or a burka. It doesn't matter what you wear, in my opinion, you should be judged for your merits.

"I don't agree with the mentality of banning it. Because it should be a choice. If you accept someone wearing fewer clothes, you should accept someone wearing more clothes. That's fair, right? We should be fair to both - someone who wants to wear short shorts or leggings.

"So, we put too much emphasis on how they look or what they wear and forget the actual matter, which is the talent and the actual effort the athlete puts in. I don't care what you wear.

"I don't understand the argument about safety because you can wear a sports hijab that fits tightly and doesn't come off."

What made this such an important issue for you?

"There is a correlation between an active child and a healthy child. If you remove sports from the curriculum for girls, you're already setting them up for a lot of physical ailments such as obesity, diabetes and brittle bone problems.

"When sport is taken out of the equation, like it is in Saudi, then you end up with an unhealthy generation."

Is that a big problem in Saudi Arabia?

"The unofficial numbers are terrifying, so I would say, it is a bit of a problem."

[Note: The Saudi Ministry of Health reports that 28.7 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia suffer from obesity, while 30.7 percent of those aged 15 years are overweight. Among school-age children, the rate of obesity is 9.3 percent - and six percent among preschool children. However, other reports have suggested that a staggering 70 percent of Saudis suffer from obesity, with 37 percent of women experiencing health problems related to weight gain.]

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How are things progressing in Saudi Arabia now?

"There is definitely progress - such as the appointment of Princess Reema bin Bandar as Vice-President of Women's Affairs of the General Authority of Sports. And Vision 20/30 is one of the signs of hope in sport for girls.  

"There is change, but in my opinion it is still a bit too slow. Because until the change is implemented in schools - that is, when the government decides to have physical education in the curriculum, I don't think the change is fast enough to catch up. And we're going to miss out on another opportunity to raise [a generation of] athletes."

What do you want to see ideally happen?

"More opportunities for girls to fall in love with a sport. I always ask: How can you expect to have Olympic-level athletes if they are not born to fall in love with a sport?

"You can't just tap someone on the shoulder and say 'you're going to compete in the Olympics' - it comes from years and years of training."

What inspires you?

"There are two pools of inspiration. Positive and negative. In my case, my inspiration came from a negative place. The fact that I was told I couldn't climb mountains - I was told what I was doing was 'crazy'. This pushed me to change what I didn't like about that mentality."

Is there anyone you look up to?

"I look up to the everyday ordinary person that can live an extraordinary life - in addition to the amazing big names in sports, of course. But I also find inspiration from the anonymous."

Do people tell you that you are a role model yourself?

"From time to time I get the odd beautiful random message that gives me goosebumps. One of my favourites recently was a picture of a certificate, and it had the name of a girl on it. And it said 'Best Cadet at the Singapore Academy’ or something like that.

"I didn't understand what it was, so I sent a message back saying, 'Hi, I think you sent this to me by mistake'. She said: 'No, I actually sent it to you intentionally. I wanted you to see my certificate.'

"I told her that it was amazing, but then she said: 'I don't think you remember me. You spoke at my school last year. And the very next day after you spoke at my school I found the courage to ask my parents to apply for me to go to cadet school. And I wanted you to see my certificate - that I'm a cadet now.'

"I can't tell you what it feels like to receive messages like that."

What further advice do you have for girls like this who are inspired by your achievements?

"Firstly, be honest with yourself. Give yourself a chance to truly be who you are. Listen to that fire within yourself. That little spark. We all have it, we're all born with it. We're all born curious. Make sure you take care of it.

"Don't be jaded by being an adult, don't let go of being a dreamer. I've always been a dreamer and I don't think I'll ever stop. It's one of the things that keeps me going.

"Be honest with your family, don't be afraid to tell them what you want. Don't be afraid to voice your opinion. Courage is something that you learn. And if you don't start asking for what you want or for your needs, then you won't find the courage to ask for it later. Just find it in you to have a voice and use it."

Will there be any more mountains?

"I don't think I'll ever stop being an explorer or an adventurer. It's in my blood. I'm hopefully going to lock in a climb in June, hopefully the highest peak in Alaska."

Raha Moharrak is an ambassador for Shirzanan, the advocacy group for Muslim women in sports. Follow her on Twitter: @RahaMoharrak 

Raha was speaking to Sophia Akram for The New Arab.

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