A curious child, Raha Moharrak dreamt of challenging adventures and seeing the world. Growing up her parents raised her to believe that her dreams are a reflection of the endlessness of her capabilities. By the age of 27, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and challenged herself, her society, and culture. Raha then went on to make history as the first Saudi woman to conquer Mount Everest. Her feats have been an inspiration to women around the world.
We talked to the adventurer about her journey to the top of the world and her hopes for the future of women in sports.
What motivated you to embark on climbing the world’s highest mountains?
I like to say that I started in my field before I even knew the field existed. Throughout life, I was expected follow a traditional path. It just didn’t work for me. There was a protest inside of me I had to honor. I wanted something that was mine, an experience for myself. So, I decided to climb. I was told I couldn’t and in that moment the journey began and I was at the point of no return. I knew I would climb no matter what. If you let it be, the word ‘no’ can be the most powerful motivator.
The word ‘no’ can be the most powerful motivator.
How did your family react when you told them your plans?
Just like any family… with worries and reservations. Especially considering the nature of the climb and how dangerous it is. The fact that I come from a very traditional and conservative culture added to the difficulty of them accepting my choice. But eventually their love for me overruled their worries and they gave me the chance to pursue my dream of living adventures and accomplishing something I’d be proud of for the rest of my life.
It sounds like you learned a lot about yourself on these climbs.
Yes, climbing reinforced and brought to life what my parents taught me growing up – that my dreams are only a reflection of the endlessness of my capabilities.
Tell us about Saudi Arabia’s culture around women and sports.
The relationship Saudi Arabia has with women and sports is complicated, largely because the line between religion and culture is blurred. In religious history, at the time of the Prophet women were as active as men. They were equally involved and integral to society, from being in business to riding into battle. An active woman was not perceived as inappropriate. But over the years, culture has changed what is and isn’t acceptable for a woman. Sports have evolved much faster for men than women, so sports in Saudi Arabia’s culture became perceived as strictly male. The lack of sports and preventing girls from being active in the country creates terrible health repercussions.
In Saudi Arabia, almost half of all women are physically inactive. What do you think are the solutions?
In my humble opinion, I think one of the keys to solving this problem is educating Saudi parents on the importance and benefits of sports. A young begging their parents to let them play sports or even advice from outside research is not a long term solution. It is difficult to change parents’ mentalities and shift the national culture. The government needs to be involved in the process.
What do sports mean to you personally?
Even before climbing, sports have always been my life. To me, sports are so much more than being fit or getting a medal. It’s about loving a healthy lifestyle, being social and constantly meeting new people. Sports can take many forms and, in every form, they are beautiful. The feeling you have when your team scores the final point in a volleyball game is as rewarding as the final steps I take toward a summit. It all enriches you on so many levels – I absolutely love it.
Sports can take many forms and, in every form, they are beautiful.
Why is it important to empower women and girls to participate in sports?
There is a big misconception that all women in the Middle East are oppressed. This sensationalized idea narrows down our identities to oppression and nothing else. The narrative about women in sports is showing the world that women in the Middle East are not victims. In fact, like all women, we are multi-dimensional, nuanced and have so much potential.
I like to think that the extra time it is taking for women to have equality in sports, means our accomplishments, stories, and achievements are deeper and grander than anyone could begin to imagine!
As an athlete, what does ‘Embrace Ambition’ mean to you?
Ambition is an unbreakable spirit, driven by passion, realized by conviction and ignited by a dream.