Talking to the first Saudi Arabian woman to scale and summit Mount Everest is enough to make your hairs stand on end. Georgie Bradley speaks with Raha Moharrak about gender equality, women and sports and why she loves high heeled boots as much as mountain boots…
Raha Moharrak is a one-woman blizzard of strength right now. She’s fresh off a plane from Miami (after giving 10 talks in four days in Denver about her story), slightly frayed from the constant movement and jet lag, but is still an energy drink of enthusiasm as we dive into the extraordinary life she’s had and is still having.
The Saudi Arabian born, Dubai dwelling Raha, was always different and the “odd one” but she “never tried to hide it,” she says. “I was blatantly curious as a child. I was always the one who climbed trees, fell down but never feared getting hurt; I played lots of sport and was overall very rebellious” she says. For her conservative hometown Jeddah, this boldness was met with raised eyebrows from the watchful gaze of society who couldn’t understand why “I just couldn’t be a girl”. Raha never fitted the cultural stereotype (her parents loved her above and beyond those set standards but still voiced concerns) but luckily, as a wayward but determined young girl, she was able to dismiss this criticism and possessed a blissful inability to understand why everyone was telling her to be a certain way – she unapologetically carried on doing what she wanted to do, which was to “be me”.
None of her peers from the all-girls state school she attended attacked life with the same level of “spunk and pizzazz” despite going through their own ‘coming of age’ journeys, Raha was on a whole other level.
There are striking echoes between Raha’s story and the critically acclaimed film Wajda where the young Saudi protagonist relentlessly goes against the grain of social and gender expectations by wanting to get a bicycle and ride it in public with her male best friend. Like Wadja, Raha courted controversy but never strayed from her passion.
After school, Raha moved to Dubai and worked her way up at Leo Burnett, an advertising agency, as an art director, picked up new sports to participate in and was finally able to enjoy a new kind of freedom. But convention got in the way again as her father wanted her to come back to Saudi to settle down, which she wasn’t opposed to, but was intent on continuing her sports and not conforming to a gendered role.
Mountains came about randomly. A friend of Raha’s was due to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2012 which tickled her fancy despite not having any mountain or even climbing credentials. But it sparked her curiosity enough to see her climb the mountain, friend in tow, with gasping effort she admits. “I had a strange sense of belonging and familiarity when I reached the top. I don’t know how you can feel at home when it’s a place you’ve never been before,” she notes. It just felt right for her. And this spawned an upward spiral that eventually concluded at the top of Mount Everest.
Between Kilimanjaro and Everest, Raha endured an overwhelming and exhausting year-long schedule of ascents to gear her up for the ultimate summit. It was when she (alongside the first ever Saudi team) reached Everest Base Camp where she craned her head up, followed the route to the top with her eye and knew that she would be
back to climb it in full.
As for her parents, they always knew she was a gogetter, to put it mildly, but never did they anticipate a career in mountain climbing. At this point, they feared for both her physical and social safety. “Whether it was an injury or being ostracised, they were very concerned. My mother very bluntly said ‘“you’re committing social suicide, are you OK with this?”’ to which Raha, in a knee jerk reaction said: “Well, if it allows me to be who am I, yes I’m fine with it.”
During that year, she climbed mountains to prepare for the cold, to get used to technical gear and to acclimatise to extreme altitudes. “I became very good at climbing, very quickly,” she says. But Everest is an entirely different beast altogether – the most hostile, inhospitable environment on earth where no living thing exists except a small crop of super humans who make the ascent each year around May time. The two-month expedition up at Everest in 2013 was a game for Raha. “I was always challenging myself to beat my record as I went up and down the mountain” – what took her 10 hours at the beginning of the climb, took her four hours before the summit push.
At the age of 25, she was the first Saudi Arabian woman and youngest Arab to climb Everest. She went up and down the mountain in 11 hours and was “very good at managing my strength and reserves. I’ve seen people crawl up to the top which is dangerous as you need energy to get down.”
For someone who was simply into recreational sports, to achieve all these ascents is astonishing, but Raha always had it in her. It was only a matter of time and overcoming many obstacles until it was finally realised. She didn’t just talk (or advocate this extreme lifestyle through some haphazard social media posts) she walked that talk and showed results. Raha has not only seen the world from the top but also, from the bottom – between Everest and Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
After the noise surrounding her feat calmed, she turned her experience into something very productive. She’s now a voice for Arab girls and women and anyone who stands to embrace female empowerment. “I am a living example that nothing is impossible. I have used the fact that I am a public figure to advocate gender equality and sports. If I can do it, what makes your dreams and aspirations too far to reach? I come from the desert but I’ve stood on the top of the highest mountains in the world. No one can take that away from me and no one can tell my daughters in the future that they are incapable of doing something like that,” she asserts.
To reverse dormant and long-held gender ideals in the region, it’s time we “stop raising girls to believe that they are less than boys, as we will never reach that sense of gender equality – whether in sports or other aspects of life. We are responsible for making that change. If there was a boy or a girl on the desert island somewhere who have not been exposed to any kind of cultural barriers, both the girl and the boy would be fighters and hunters, doing what they need to do, to survive. It’s our mentality that structures these gendered boxes we’re held within.”
Of course, Raha’s voice, as powerful and as reverberating as it is, is just one voice. This lofty subject needs strength in numbers to action any kind of change because Raha is still just “an individual, not an entity” but we’re getting there, one empowering story at a time. If her public talks are anything to go by, she’s making waves in all corners of the globe.
What makes her a bona fide feminist even more so, is that she has never made a conscious decision to fit into only one box. Historically, society has polarised women to believe that they can either be very girly or very boyish but Raha has a comfortable and natural flair for both worlds. If you go on her Instagram account (@rahamoharrak) you’ll see she wears mountain boots and Vogue approved kneehigh boots in equal measure. And it’s because she can. “I do it intentionally because I want to prove a point. You don’t have to be one or the other, you don’t have to choose just one side,” she asserts.
When Raha spends more time at sea level than she cares to, she becomes visibly “melancholy”. But this summer, Raha is back to scaling the heights and this time it’s Denali, the highest peak in Alaska which is notorious for its technical difficulty. Raha attempted it two years ago “and nearly died. It’s a none-assist climb so you have to carry all your gear and it’s a very steep and moody mountain. Although I am a strong climber, I have a very small waist which is great in dresses but not so on the mountain!”
The sky’s the limit for Raha; but having already reached the roof of the earth, she’s off to a promising start. Raha is also currently in the throes of writing a book about her Everest experience and beyond. It’s set for a late 2017 release. We cannot wait.