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05/23/2013

Scaling mountains and crossing deserts to break tradition

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Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to scale Mount Everest. (Courtesy: Arabs on Top of The World)

 

 

 

 

Women from the Gulf states are increasingly making their mark on the world stage in small, but significant ways.

Last Saturday, Raha Moharrak, 27, became the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest.

Moharrak made it clear she did not intend to make a political statement – she told AP afterwards: “I didn’t do it to cause a movement, did not do it because of anything, but if I can change people’s opinion or the world’s opinion on Saudi women and if I can change Saudi women’s opinion about themselves I would be really happy.”

Coming from a country where she is forbidden to drive, scaling one of the most difficult mountains in the world is a political statement, whether she chooses to recognize it or not.

Women from the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, hampered by social and family pressure, rarely seek public roles. 

On the expedition’s website Moharrak, who is from Jeddah, says it was difficult to convince her conservative family to allow her to climb but in the end they supported her.

Other women have also been chipping away at tradition.

In 2010, Elham Al Qasimi of the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole. She was 27 at the time. She cross-country skied for 11 days, battling temperatures of minus 40 C. 

Touchingly, when she arrived at her destination she poured a bag of sand from her desert homeland.  "It was such a huge journey, and it would have brought me to my knees if I hadn't come from the place that I came from, so I wanted to leave it there to recognize that," she said at the time.

These girls are smart and courageous but they also have the family and contacts behind them to succeed. Al Qasimi, a graduate of the London School of Economics, was sponsored by a major Dubai-based company and her PR looked after by powerhouse Bell Pottinger.

Moharrak’s expedition to Mount Everest was for a charity founded by the wife of the ruling emir of Qatar and one of her teammates was a royal sheikh. That may sound like a tenuous link but Gulf Arab society is tiny, and anyone who does anything of import, regardless of gender, needs powerful backers.  

 

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Elham Al Qasimi pours sand upon reaching the North Pole in 2010. (Copyright: Elham Al Qasimi)

 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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