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Girls & Women

Only Saudi Woman to Climb Everest Urges Country to Let Women Play Sports

Raha Moharrak is already a legend. The 30-year-old is one of 418 women in world history to have climbed Mt. Everest, and the youngest Arab, and the only Saudi woman to ever do so. She has also summited 13 additional treacherous mountain peaks, spanning seven continents.  

Speaking at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, Moharrak told the story of how she found her drive to defy her patriarchal culture, excel in one of the hardest physical challenges on earth, and the pave the way for other women to participate in sports, too.

Born in Saudi Arabia, she was deemed to be “getting too old” to attract male suitors, according to her father. A week after she had that conversation with her father, she decided to go climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Her father worried about her. He told her not to go, which made her even more sure she needed to go. 

“This is what I was meant to do, to go far beyond what was expected,” Moharrak said.

Her parents came around to supporting her, and now she’s advocating for her country to let girls play sports. 

“They love me more than conformity, they love me more than they want me to be like other girls,” said Moharrak. 

Moharrak is lucky: female athletes are a rarity among Saudi Arabia’s 14 million girls and women. Women are so restricted in activity that they are not allowed to drive, open a bank account or business without male permission. Access to sports are not only limited, they are discouraged in Saudi Arabia. 

Of the country’s 145 sports organizations, none are open to women, according to Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who joined Moharrak in a discussion on the topic of Saudi women in sports. 

“They could change this with the stroke of pen, and [women] could have other opportunities, like education, too,” added Worden. 

The benefits of sports, and sense of empowerment they offer, have been well-documented for both women and men, but that hasn’t changed the Saudi government’s mind on allowing women to play. 

But a new angle might have a greater impact in easing the oppressive culture that dominates Saudi women: their health. 

Women are showing signs of experiencing brittle bones, diabetes, and obesity in the country according to Worden.

“It’s already happening,” adds Moharrak.  

Both women hope that by using the health lens to draw attention and concern to not just the issue of issue of women’s rights, but also of the country’s health and future, the government will listen. 

Ultimately, they’d like to see the government change its laws and include Saudi women in sports. 

Moharrak says she dreams of a Saudi future where there are so many girls and women who are strong, healthy, and competing in the world that Moharrak's story is “just a footnote,” she said.