Arab women cannot all be lumped into the same homogenous category; we are not all an oppressed, forcefully veiled gender with no rights. But, like most women across the world, we are expected to adhere to certain codes of conduct that don’t apply to men; we are often locked in a little box of social construct, though ours is perhaps more pronounced than our Western counterparts. And every time one of us starts breaking the walls of that box, her achievements echo globally, changing the rules for the rest of us and changing the perception of Arab women. That’s exactly what Raha Moharrak did when she made history in 2013, becoming the first Saudi woman ever to summit the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.
Since then, she’s become the youngest Arab to conquer all seven summits, became the first Arab ambassador for upscale Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer last year, and is currently writing a book to encourage Arab women to follow their dreams regardless of the social consequences. All before the age of 30.
And her entire journey stemmed from her adamant refusal to adhere to the rules her society had set for her. “I didn’t want to fit in the box everybody was trying to fit me in, that’s the initial reason why I decided to climb,” says Moharrak simply.
Aside from the obvious danger, there are the social repercussions in Saudi for being a woman and doing something that’s considered very male
If the Arab nations were to be ranked on a scale of how conservative they are, the mountaineer’s home country of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly leads the pack, with women only winning the right to drive in the country last year, which is perhaps part of what made Moharrak’s achievements so powerful; she will probably be remembered for posterity as one of the Arab women who changed the game.
Her battles with her father to earn permission to climb are well well documented but it her was relentless persistence that finally convinced him - reluctantly. “He was worried about me. Aside from the obvious danger, there are the social repercussions in Saudi for being a woman and doing something that’s considered very male,” she says, “If he had said no? I would have been persistent. I’m extremely stubborn,” she adds with a laugh. Though since her first conquest, she has gone on to summit all seven peaks, it didn’t necessarily get easier. “Every time I wanted to climb it was a new battle, a new argument.” And she fought every one of them.
Less well documented is her mother’s reaction to her desire to climb. “Me and my mom had a very honest sit down and she looked at me and she said, ‘You know what you’re doing right?’
I told her, ‘Yeah I’m committing social suicide.’ She said, ‘Are you okay with that?’ I said ‘Yes, because if it means being true to who I am then I’d rather commit social suicide then be alive and not be who I am,” Raha recounts.
Beyond the obvious though, Moharrak’s strength as an iconic female and a role model for women lies not in her concrete achievements. Climbing a mountain is brutal, but her strength lies in fighting society, family, and rigid rules to do it; her willingness to then be brutally honest about the struggles she faced to achieve what she wanted; her outspokenness; how eager she is to constantly be reachable to women with similar situations; and most of all, her thirst to constantly achieve more.
you might be ousted for what you believe, you might lose something, but you need to be bold enough to go after it
“I get a full rainbow of praise and criticism - what I’m doing is not feminine and not right and I’m a bad example and all that jazz. But I genuinely believe you need to stick by your guns and you need to accept these consequences – you might be ousted for what you believe, you might lose something, but you need to be bold enough to go after it,” she argues.
These days, the mountaineer gets a flurry of messages from women seeking her advice – and though she’s arguably ‘made it’ and though people with more followers and fewer achievements often deem themselves too important to respond to random messages, she goes out of her way to reach out to everyone one of them. Her response when I reached out was almost instantaneous, something I can’t say for very many women on Instagram. “I get girls from all over the world messaging me for advice. I Skype with people I don’t know and I have phone calls with people I don’t know… It’s pretty amazing. If someone takes the time to message me, I will message them back.”
As she forges her path forward her undying belief is that a fear of failure is at the core what needs to be overcome. Writing her book, which she says is about 90% complete, was another leap of faith for her, growing up with dyslexia. “Unless we get over this stigma of being a failure, no walls will be broken, no ceilings will be shattered.”
And Moharrak is only a microcosm of the change that is flowing through the veins of the Arab world, but every little surge swells and makes a radical difference. “Saudi itself is starting to change,” she says, “It’s because there’s a shift in power in our society. Women have become as competitive, as out there as men, so it’s slowly shifting. I honestly never imaged I’d be alive when we drive in my country so I choose to be positive and tell you we will be up there in terms in women’s rights. It’s a huge deal that women are driving in Saudi Arabia – huge. So if that’s possible, everything else is possible.”
I honestly never imaged I’d be alive when we drive in my country so I choose to be positive and tell you we will be up there in terms in women’s rights. If that’s possible, everything else is possible.
In a country that is experiencing a myriad of firsts as of late, Moharrak’s story and achievements reflect a greater changing climate in Saudi Arabia. The first cinema opened in there just mere months ago, and even more shocking than women driving themselves, ride sharing apps are now recruiting female drivers in the kingdom – a move that is rare even within the larger scope of the Middle East. “I think that the government realizes that there’s power in women, so more and more now they have come to accept and nourish. It’s changing. I never thought I’d say this but it’s finally changing.”
Between the appointment of the first female spokeswoman abroad for the kingdom to the decree forbidding Saudi government agencies from requiring male guardian’s consent for women seeking services such as healthcare, all within recent years, change is not only imminent, it is very much upon us. And Moharrak’s story beautifully epitomizes the changing narrative of her nation.
But despite everything she’s attained, records she’s broken, and headlines she’s made, some things, as every Arab woman can probably attest, never change. “My mom still keeps asking me about the 3arees,” Moharrak concludes with a laugh, “That doesn’t ever fall out of the conversation!”
You can follow her on Instagram @rahamoharrak.
All images courtesy of Tag Heuer.