If you spend much time studying extraordinary women throughout history, it’s easy to conclude that one of the surest ways to get a woman to do something seemingly impossible is to tell her that she can’t. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the case of Raha Moharrak who quite literally climbed to the top of the world, just to prove that she could.
Raha was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. As a child, she suffered from dyslexia, which made writing and maths extremely difficult. Still, her parents encouraged her to strive to accomplish great things. Given the current situation with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the fact they encouraged her to strive for more was, in and of itself, high risk.
Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women are well-known, but it’s important to emphasise the context under which Raha was living. Women are unable to allowed to go anywhere, even the grocery store, without a male relative to chaperone them. Everything from schools to banks to buses are segregated and publicly interacting with a man who is not a relative can be considered a crime. Women cannot open a bank account without their husband’s permission or visit the grave of a loved one at a cemetery. They are not permitted to drive cars. The country has a history of being unsupportive to women in sports — in fact, just last year, they proposed the idea of hosting a men’s-only Olympic games. Per their proposal, all female athletes would be forced to compete in a separate Olympic games in a different country.
I wanted to prove to the world that Saudi women are more than just housewives. They are strong women who can do anything if they are given the chance to.
Raha has never been one to take no for an answer. Despite her dyslexia, she not only persevered through school, she also took it upon herself to pursue higher education, ultimately travelling to the United Arab Emirates, where she earned a degree in graphic design from the American University of Sharjah. She got a job just after graduation at an advertising firm, where she worked for three years in Dubai before returning to Saudi Arabia. Soon, she found herself craving adventure, which is when the idea of climbing Mount Everest inexplicably popped in her head. She was told she couldn’t do it, but that only made her want to do it more. There were two big things standing in her way, however: the fact that she knew next to nothing about climbing and the fact that she’d still have to convince her family.
“No” is an invitation to try harder, not an obstacle.
Despite the fact that she’d never even been camping before, and she hated going to the gym, she had a plan to conquer her lack of knowledge of climbing with training and research. Getting her father on board however, was a much bigger challenge. When Raha first approached him about the idea, he rejected it outright. If she was going to pursue such a plan, she at least needed to wait until she was married. So Raha wrote her father a letter explaining why it was so important to her. For three days she waited in agony, and then, the reply came: “I love you, you’re crazy, go for it.”
Two months later, Raha was standing on top of Mount Kilamanjaro. From the moment she reached the summit, she was hooked. Within a year, she climbed 7 more mountains, and then, she was ready for Everest.
Raha traveled to Everest in 2013 as part of a four-person team. Together they, along with 60 other climbers, began the journey to the summit. It was a dangerous one. More than 250 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest, and passing a dead woman on her way up reaffirmed to Raha just how risky this undertaking was. Still, she persevered. It took 2-months of arduous work, but she made it. On May 18th 2013, she reached the top of Mount Everest — the highest point in the world. She was the first Saudi woman ever to do so. At 27-years old, she was also the youngest Saudi in history to reach Everest’s summit.
I really don’t care about being the first, so long as it inspires someone else to be second.
Since then, Raha has become a role model for ambitious Saudi girls. She’s continued exploring the world, travelling to six continents and climbing their highest mountains. She only has one to go before she can say that she’s climbed all of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents.
Beyond that, Raha’s future remains open – “You’re talking to a girl who a year and a half ago had never climbed a mountain, and then almost 18 months later, I was standing on top of the world. The best answer I can give is: ask me in a year.”