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Adventurer Raha Moharrak.

Touching the sky

Meet the Saudi woman who climbed Everest

By Jasmine Bager on April 7, 2017

Women around the world often feel they need to move mountains in order to realize their dreams. Saudi climber Raha Moharrak came close to actually doing that.

“My level of adventure far exceeded my fear of rejection,” Raha Moharrak told the crowd at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on Friday afternoon. Like many girls, Moharrak grew up with hopes and dreams that could fill the vast Saudi desert where she grew up. She was an energetic and athletic child, but as she grew older, she discovered that women like her weren’t encouraged to pursue sports full-time. That didn’t stop her.

At the age of 27, Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to climb Mt. Everest. Achieving her goal—which, as moderator Gianna Toboni of VICE noted, would be a feat for any man or woman of any nationality—was surreal. “I felt both massive and tiny in the universe,” she said. “I was born in the desert and fell in love with mountains and felt humbled to prove to little girls that we are capable of whatever we dream of.” The first thing she thought to do after reaching the top? Eat six burgers.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch (HRW), has been working with the Saudis for a decade to open up the conversation surrounding women and sports. Saudi government policy virtually forbids women to exercise or practice sports for fear that such activity will lead to immoral behavior. Sports facilities are nearly non-existent in the country and many all-girls schools don’t offer adequate physical education for women—if any at all.

In 2010, HRW issued a report called “Steps of the Devil” that attempted to change Saudi attitudes. “It’s important to challenge this. It’s a matter of health,” Worden said. Rates of diabetes and obesity have risen sharply in Saudi Arabia, particularly among women. The fact that their mobility is limited and places to exercise aren’t easily available or accessible is a major factor.

Moharrak graciously embraces the spotlight, but she is also keen on sharing the platform with other women who advocate for healthy lifestyles. She believes access to fitness facilities will improve not only women’s overall health but also their bodies, minds and spirits. She urges parents to be more accepting of their daughters being interested in professional sports, which she thinks are a key to building a new generation of healthy, ambitious and driven youth.

Raha Moharrak at the Women in the World Summit, April 7, 2017.

Sports, she said, are especially important for children. Knowing the meaning of winning and losing helps to shape child’s work ethic and capacity for perseverance. Without sports, Moharrak said, “a block is missing in character building. Sports is beyond winning—it builds your personality.” Sports also help children learn to work together as a team, celebrating and supporting one another.

Moharrak is now climbing a different kind of mountain—one that has no peaks but plenty of rough edges. Her mission is to promote healthy lifestyles in Saudi girls and to remind other Saudi women that they too can reach the highest peak—no matter what their field. Although it seems like a solitary sport, Moharrak has other Saudi women at her side helping to promote similar goals. During last year’s Olympic games, Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud became the country’s first ever Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia. And an ambitious new initiative, Vision 2030, aims to modernize Saudi Arabia more generally.

“If a Saudi woman can touch the sky, you are capable of going beyond that,” Moharrak said to rousing applause. In the future, she wants her fellow countrywomen to strive for higher and bolder peaks. Climbing Mt. Everest should be seen “like a footnote.” Someday, she hopes, they will go as high as the moon.

“I was destined for more than to walk a path. I was meant to climb it,” Moharrak said.

Additional reporting by Annie Wong.


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