She is the first woman from Saudi Arabia to summit Mt. Everest, and after already conquering 6 of the world’s highest peaks, she now has her sights on completing the 7th. Raha Moharrak is a graphic designer by trade, but spends her spare time indulging in her passion for mountain climbing. The next place she hopes to plant her flag will be Denali, in Alaska.
At the age of 30, the Jeddah-based badass is breaking barriers and living the kind of inspirational life that will no doubt inspire many other young women in her home country. Yet her path to achieving physical greatness around the world hasn’t always been easy for her, living in a country where the rights of women and girls are not always guaranteed, and are in some places non-existent.
Thought we have seen slow steps toward progress, with the allowance of women to participate in municipal elections as voters and as candidates, they are still forbidden from driving and playing sports in public the way many of us women take for granted elsewhere in the world. But Raha is not alone in her passion for sports and physical activity as a way of defying social and cultural traditions that seek to prohibit women from public life. Fitness centers and all-female sports teams are springing up as way for women and girls to find empowerment in small ways, while the bigger battle for equality wages on.
In an interview with Sport360.com, Raha explains that her family were reluctant to understand her need to go beyond the expected norms for Arab women, but she knew she had to do it anyway.
“There was a point in my life, where I was at a crossroads. I had to follow a specific path being an Arab girl and I wasn’t comfortable fitting into that mold. So I decided to do something different and something new. I went online and I did some research and I found different things to do. It wasn’t until someone suggested climbing that I actually took it seriously and after climbing my first mountain I fell in love with the feeling and I couldn’t stop,” she said.
In an interview with CNN after she completed her Everest climb, Raha goes into more detail about the conversation with her especially conservative father who couldn’t understand why she couldn’t wait until after she got married. She wrote him a long letter explaining why, and waited for 3 days before he responded.
“I was so scared of his reaction. And after the three days of silence to me he sent me one line — ‘I love you. You are crazy. Go for it’,” she recalled.
“Overall it was very difficult to change mentalities, starting with my own family. It was very difficult to get them to understand what it meant to me to climb. They didn’t understand why I do this to myself. It was a very big challenge to change such a rigid and very old view of what females are meant to do,” she told Sport 360.
Her achievements are even more remarkable when you learn she has only been climbing since 2011, but clearly her spirit of determination, which she says actually originated with her parents who often told her to aim for greatness, is the underlying magic to what she has been able to accomplish.
It wasn’t only her parents who have thought twice about her extreme hobby, as many on her Everest expedition didn’t think she had what it takes.
“One person actually said ‘What is Barbie doing on the mountain?’ and I said: ‘Don’t let the Disney princess hair fool you.'”
While she says she didn’t set out to be the poster child for defiance in Saudi Arabia, Raha is well aware of the impact she is already having on young women, judging by a letter she received from a teen girl after news of her climb was shared in the media.
“I think she was 13 or 14 years old … saying ‘I just wanted to tell you that after hearing your story I found the courage to ask my father for a bicycle.’ I thought if that young lady had the courage to buy a bicycle today and to ride it, what is she capable of tomorrow?” she said.
Raha doesn’t seem to revel in the title of being the “first Saudi woman to climb Everest” as much as the thought of not wanting to be the last, which is an important distinction to make. Her impact is not only being felt in Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere in the world, as she was asked to participate in a bike ride across Iowa in 2015 by Shirzanan, a media and advocacy organization for Muslim women in sports. In the video below Raha admits she didn’t even know how to ride a bike at the time, but wanted to participate.
Up next, channeling the same determination that got her to the top of Everest, to her second attempt at Denali. Due to treacherous weather conditions, her first attempt was thwarted, but we have no doubt if there is anyone who can achieve the feat of conquering the world’s 7 highest peaks, it is Raha Moharrak.
“I understand why some people do not support me even though there is nothing wrong with a woman climbing a mountain. I respect their opinion and freedom to express their views. I still remember how many people tried to discourage me from embarking on this adventure. They kept telling me I wouldn’t be able to achieve anything because I am a Saudi woman. But I have proved them wrong,” she told the Saudi Gazette.
But society’s expectations are no match for a woman who has achieved what a select few in the world have.