Always a curious and energetic child, for as long as she can remember, Raha dreamt of challenging adventures, seeing the world and perhaps even changing it. From a young age her eccentricity was obvious, and blessed with parents who encouraged her to dream big and live even bigger and raised her with the belief that life is what she makes of it and her dreams are a reflection of the endlessness of her capabilities, writes Nadia Al Sayed.
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Visional Communications from the American University of Sharjah, she then started her career at a leading advertising agency. Raha’s life changed the day she summited Kilimanjaro and challenged herself, her society, and culture. It was there, amongst the clouds, standing on Africa’s roof where her spirit could no longer be silenced and nothing could hold her back from her love of adventure; Kilimanjaro opened the doors to 8 more summits, however, her curiosity as to where her limits were grew fierce, and just when she thought she found them, she set her eyes on Everest, and the dream that turned her into an accidental role model was born. On May 18th, 2013, Raha made history by being the first Saudi woman to summit Everest and the seven highest mountains in each continent, proving we could attempt and maybe even achieve the impossible no matter where we are from.
Was the mountaineering process especially difficult and challenging, considering you are a Saudi woman, if so, how?
The procedure differed for a range of reasons; one being the fact that the flat desert terrain I have lived in and adapted to are obviously very different to the high altitude mountains covered in ice, therefore, everything from physical preparation to gear collection was a challenge. It wasn’t like I could just put my boots on and go out to practice climbing; I also had to buy my climbing gear from all over the world and train with it. This was perplexing. And then of course, socially and even within my family, it was very difficult to alter mind-sets and to try to break the mould embedded in the society.
What was your initial motivation?
My initial motivation, as silly as this may sound, was stubbornness, and this urge to primarily prove to myself and everybody else that they are wrong; they cannot dictate how I live my life just because I am a woman. I am expected to fit into boxes that social expectations impose on me. So, my initial motivation was that I wanted and needed to do something that was different and new, something (pun intended) that would get me out of that box, and moreover, to change my family’s outlook, as well. I wanted them to see that I can do something that was my own, and that was so far beyond the scope of our preconceived notions.
Were you supported by friends, family and society?
I am lucky; whilst I did have opposition and a lot of negativity surrounding me, I also had a lot of positivity, supportive people including family and friends. Of course, confronting society was the most difficult taboo to break because what I did was something so far off from what is expected of Saudi women; I mean, a Saudi woman climbing the highest mountain in the world was a little too much, but eventually, and especially in the past year, I’ve been celebrated more than criticized, which is a huge leap and I think it’s just going to get better.
As a Saudi and Muslim woman what are some of the obstacles you were faced with?
The obstacle was changing my family’s outlook and changing their view and trying to get them on board, because you have to keep in mind that I refused to do this without their consent, support and love. I wanted to pursue my goal with them on my side, without anger and fear. That, without a doubt, were the main obstacles: changing ‘social conditioning’ which in a way was even more challenging than the climbing.
What changed for you after your first climb?
The realization of how passionate I am about mountaineering, of the sense of adventure and personal accomplishments that were missing from my life, and the intensity of my appreciation for high altitudes and challenges. Also, that I was going to give my parents and myself much cause for discomfort, as this mountain was not going to be my first or my last taste of a summit. It is amazing as I discovered my feelings of belonging to a place that I’ve never been to, I felt like I fit somewhere – a place that I did not even know existed.
What is your advice for someone who wants to embark on an adventure but is worried because they are not conforming to society’s norms?
“Be honest with yourself. Are you going to be happy with yourself living someone else’s life or do you want to lead your own life?” You have to be brave enough to want to be who you are, and if that is not a reason enough then I don’t know what is. You will be afraid and you will struggle, but that is just a part of it, it means that this is something that is important to you. Never be afraid of failure, most people, especially women, are scared to start something new because they’re worried they will fail. There’s no shame in failing; there is only shame in giving up. If you don’t try something new, you will never know what you’re capable of or and how far you can go. So be brave enough to grasp it.
Did the trip meet your expectations?
I did not know what to expect, I really had no idea. I had never climbed before. I had nothing to base my expectations on. It was all a new experience. And if I had to pick between above or below my expectation, it definitely exceeded my expectations, as it really changed me. It was not a trip I came back from with pictures to fill up a photo album, I came back down from that mountain a different person and it changed the course of not just my life, but that of my family, and subsequently my career as well, which I have completely devoted to public speaking, climbing, and collaborating with brands.
What was your desired outcome?
My desired outcome was to live an experience, to push myself beyond my boundaries and discover new ones, to redefine myself and then to take that definition and question it. The outcome is so multi-layered, it’s not just one thing. I also wanted to climb the seven summits, the highest mountain of each continent. I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that Arab women, in general, and Saudi women specifically, are capable and can go beyond what is given to us. The desired outcome was just to live a life I’m proud of, to shatter the stereotype, to feel fulfilled, accomplished, smile and be happy.
What were your thoughts reaching the summit?
Although this is one of the most common questions I’m asked, I never know how to answer as it was like a ray of feelings, I was Pandora’s Box – I felt contrasting emotions all at the same time, I felt grand and miniscule, big, grandiose and like a speck of dust about to be blown off by the wind. It’s a very strange moment, and I was standing there, looking out into the beautiful horizon, I could see the curvature of the earth and I almost pinched myself because I could not believe I finally got to the top of this mountain on my own two feet; given that I started from the desert (not just base camp). So, it was a surreal moment. The first feelings that rush over me are usually euphoria and happiness, although I did feel tired and stinky too.
What have you done since and what is next for you?
I just got back from Alaska, which is the last summit which concluded the seven summits for me, the highest peak in each continent. So, I just really want some time off for myself, to catch up with my family and friends, to take care of my bumps and bruises, and to hopefully finish my book that I started writing a few years ago, which is a memoir about being an ambitious Saudi woman who quit her job after being socially pressured to then climb all these wild mountains. I hope to be able to focus my time in finishing this book, and when it is finally done, maybe it will serve as a legacy and a basis to change rigid mind-sets and some hearts too. I hope that I have sparked Saudi women to reach even further than I did.