Reading about mountain climbers conquering new heights, quite literally, is always interesting. Its intriguing to know their motivations behind the incredible feats. But hearing about a woman from a conservative culture such as that of Saudi Arabia climbing mount Everest is even more interesting, and this chapter talks about just that. This chapter will discuss in detail why Raha Muharrak, a Saudi woman, decided to conquer the top 7 mountains of the world and what kind of struggles she had to go through to make her dream a reality.
Raha was born in 1986 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to indigenous parents. She claims that she was always the difficult child in the family and in the culture that she grew up in, she was always the odd one out. She learned that from very early on and, luckily, instead of crushing down her self-esteem, her parents supported her to the highest degree without abandoning their cultural norms. When she was little, she was boyish and was interested in athletic activities instead of dolls and toy houses. And although she used to play with her brother’s friends when they were young, as she grew up, she felt the walls and confines created around her gender in Saudi Arabia for cultural and religious reasons grew as well.
She says that when you’re a little girl and you want to play sports and run around with boys, its kind of cute and acceptable, but once you become a woman, the limitations on the female gender become much more prominent. Raha was brought up believing in herself, to be comfortable in her skin, and her nature was such that it was almost impossible to confine herself to the accepted gender roles in her own country. The only reasonable way to live her life was to be comfortable in her own skin, that is what made her happy, and that was what her parents had taught her all her life.
Understandably, attempting to go against societal norms is always followed by backlash and Raha also faced the exact same issues. Ever since she was a child, her desire to do stuff which was deemed odd for girls led to her hearing a lot of discouragement and what she thinks is the most dreadful word, “No.” The two letters, “N” and “O”, when combined, meant something that frightened Raha, she could not tolerate her ambitions being ruined by her being prohibited from acting the way she wanted. Unfortunately, due to the nature of her aspirations, she often had to hear people point out things she could not do, things she is not capable of doing, passions deemed unsuitable for women, and dreams a girl from Saudi Arabia can never realize. Be it minute activities such as playing outdoor sports, or aiming to climb a summit, rejection is something Raha had to face every step of the way.
Her story is of a woman conquering an extreme sport, but the nature of her struggle is very gradual; small steps leading her to eventually fulfilling her ambitions. Her story is not of fighting and rebelling against the society that imposed limitations on her but of slowly paving a path for herself and convincing people to accept her as she is. In her struggle, Raha not only questioned and disproved the gender roles imposed by her society but also enabled the younger generation of girls to follow their dreams.
When she was a child, she was forced to stop playing outdoors as girls are supposed to adopt parda (veil) as they grow older. She could not play any sports as most of them compromised her parda, so she was stuck doing all she was passionate about within the confines of her house. Other people treated her as a freak, a tomboy, and despised her interests in activities they deemed inappropriate for girls. Naturally, she had to face a lot of rejection throughout her life, in sports, in school plays, in planning adventures with her friends. It got to a point where Raha started believing she was in the wrong and actually tried to stick to “girly” things and conform to whatever the society deemed appropriate for her. She stayed at home and took part in the activities her female friends liked.
But instead of being at peace, Raha felt even more suffocated, imprisoned by her limitations. Raha decided that she could not bear a lifestyle that made her feel like she was caged, and so she took it upon herself to be fierce in fighting for her passions and not listening to whatever inconsequential remarks strangers had on her choices.
Given her nature and the kind of upbringing she had, Raha pursued her passions, in academics as well as in her free time. But she had found nothing that brought her immense pleasure, she was still in pursuit something she was meant to do, something that gave her a sense of fulfillment. But eventually, she did find her calling, and in the most unexpected of times. Raha was sitting with her peers at an event when someone talked about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and that piqued her interest. It brought out the adventurer in her and she went on to gather more and more information about the hike from that person. When she went home that night she could not sleep. She had found her calling and knew that she had to go on this adventure.
The main source of support in her life, her parents, agreed with whatever absurd plans she talked about, but even they conformed to their cultural norms. They encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, but Raha knew that asking for her parent’s blessing to climb a mountain is absolutely ridiculous. Being a part of a Saudi household, she could not go without convincing her parents. For most adults informing their parents about an adventure is something very trivial, many don’t even ask for their permission, and therefore Raha’s problem might seem trivial to many. But considering the kind of culture she grew up in, it is important to understand the significance of their cultural values, and why she felt obliged to get her parent’s blessing before embarking on such a risky adventure.
Raha told in a conference that she was too scared to even ask her dad. At that time, she was in Dubai and her dad in another city, so she got the opportunity to call him. She says she was so nervous that she could not have talked to her dad face-to-face. Over the phone, she spoke rapidly in a panicky voice telling her dad about her plans to climb the highest peak in Africa. However, her father’s reply was something that rang in her ears for days to come. She heard the same word she always dreaded, and this time it was her father who said it. Her father, very calmly, said no, and hung up. The following night Raha could not sleep, could not think of anything else but her newfound dream.
She knew she could not let it go this easily, she had to go, and she had to get her father’s blessing. It was difficult for her and it required a lot of courage, but Raha decided to give it another go. This time around though, she was much more convincing. During one of her sleepless nights, she decided to send her dad a detailed email. While drafting the email, she argued that her dad was the one who encouraged her to follow her heart, and she felt that this was her calling. She was frustrated at him that how could he say no to her without even having a proper conversation. So, she spent the whole night writing a long, long email. Later she compared that email’s length to a phone book; it was that long! In it, she threw every single thing he taught her back at him. She called him out for putting her on a leash, imposing barriers on her when he was the one who told her she was invincible, that she could reach for the stars. He was the one who led her to believe in herself when the whole world thought that her actions were unfit for a woman. She called him out for putting a ceiling on her when she had finally found her purpose in life.
She did all this while trying to be as politically correct as possible because again, coming from a Saudi household, she could not straight up rebel against her father’s will and go on her adventure with a “to hell with everything” attitude. Owing to her being severely dyslexic and very nervous, she spell-checked everything with her finger on the send button. Raha has been on 14 expeditions in the 7 continents including a mountain on which she almost died twice, but the moment she was about to send her dad that one email is still one of the scariest of her life. She took a deep breath and sent the email.
As soon as she sent the mail, she panicked! She thought to herself that this is the stupidest thing she has ever done, and her parents are now going to force her to come home and arrange a marriage for her before she gets any more ridiculous ideas. Because that’s how it works in Saudi Arabia, many girls even dream about growing up and being married off in a foreign family to the prince charming they’ve never met. Fortunately, that was not what Raha desired, but it was still a very real possibility for her and it would’ve made her life miserable if her parents forced her to get married.
To Raha’s dismay, her father who regularly talks to her to this day decided to completely ignore her email. He ignored her for weeks, and those were one of the most anxious of times for her. Raha called her mother to access her father’s anger and was informed that he hasn’t been himself. He seemed upset and no one dared to trigger his anger by asking about Raha. She kept waiting and waiting and eventually got a one-line reply. To her surprise, it said “You’re crazy. I love you, Go for it.” And she never had imagined what that one line would enable her to do in the coming years.
But this was not even the beginning for her journey. It was hard for her to convince her parents who always supported her. But it was a completely different story with her peers. Whenever she mentioned her plans to climb a mountain, people laughed at her “ridiculous” ideas. Some were shocked while others laughed off her crazy ideas. But she paid no heed to the negative comments and very soon she began her journey to Mount Kilimanjaro just as planned. When she reached the summit, she was facing potentially fatal conditions such as snow blindness and hypothermia. She could not feel her limbs, but she felt so alive. She could not fathom the sense of achievement that she got on top of that mountain. Immediately, she knew that this isn’t the last time she was going to stand at the highest point on land.
Once she got the taste of it all, she was addicted! Upon coming back, her family could see a unique spark in her. A light they had never seen before in her eyes, they knew that Raha had found her purpose and there’s no force on earth that can stop her from going back again. Her journey had just begun.
Over the span of the next few years, she climbed 8 more mountains completing her goal of climbing the 7 summits. She spent countless hours training and educating herself to hone her skills. In the process, she came face to face with death in near-fatal accidents. While climbing the Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, she almost died. The accident was so traumatizing that she suffered from PTSD for a year after that. Raha was unable to put her boots and her jacket back on for a long time. She had panic attacks when she attempted to put her gear back on and therefore had to forego her ambition for the time being.
Raha was always daring, and never showed fear in risky situations but the accident that nearly killed her left her with psychological issues that she couldn’t just ignore. The Denali almost broke her, but the fear of losing, the fear of failing her dream was far greater than the fear of the mountain. So, over the course of one year, she spent countless hours in therapy, training, and focusing her willpower until she could put on her suit without feeling any stress. Eventually, she conquered the Everest, as well as Denali. She is now one of the most prominent mountain climbers owing to her personal struggles as well as her background. Her family is proud of her and so are all her friends and acquaintances.
For Raha, even though she thinks mountain climbing brings her immense sense of achievement but what really made her years of struggle worth it was when a young girl from Saudi Arabia reached out to her and told her how she inspired them to follow their passions. Raha is now planning to write a book which will serve the purpose of a memoir and she will dedicate it to all the people who helped her throughout her journey, especially her parents. She was also announced the first female Arab brand ambassador of TAG Heuer.
The attitude that helped Raha succeed at attaining her goal:
Positive attitude in the face of rejection:
Raha always had a positive outlook on life. It didn’t matter how hopeless a situation was, she managed to find a silver lining. Her positive attitude was what led her to tackle rejection and mockery from people in her community. Although Raha hated when someone tried to put limits on her because of her gender, whenever someone said no to her Raha took it as an opportunity. Instead of sulking in misery, she decided to prove these naysayers wrong by challenging herself to break stereotypes and prove that a Saudi woman is capable of doing everything a man can. These people and their negativity are what drove Raha to embark on a magnificent adventure.
Have an open conversation:
Having a positive mindset is one thing, but one can’t achieve anything with just the mindset if they don’t have a plan. Raha understood that from the very beginning and took measures to make sure her ambitions are accepted as her passion; a purpose she needs to fulfill at all costs, rather than a childish act of rebellion. Raha believes that in a conservative household such as hers, it can be very tough and scary to discuss ideas the families might perceive as eccentric or absurd. The key is to overcome that fear is to start a conversation and pave a path for a healthy debate. Understanding and acknowledging the importance of cultural norms is important but it is significant to express one’s own point of view. That is how proposing to change cultural norms can be viewed as appropriate owing to the changing times rather than a show of defiance.
Not accepting failure after losing:
Going against the cultural norms was difficult enough for Raha but moving forward she was bound to face various physical and mental hardships. Raha believes once you’re at the foothills of the mountains, apart from your skills, your perseverance and mindset are what get you to the top. She has seen tall, muscular, and macho men tremble and break down crying during the climb while on the other end of the spectrum she has also climbed with amputees with just one leg. It was her resilience and the ability to not lose sight of her goal that enabled her to reach great heights despite the numerous adversities and fatal accidents she had to endure.