The Everest-Conquerer, The Footballer And The Designer Inspiring A Generation of Saudi Female Athletes
For some people, climbing actual mountains must sometimes seem easier than conquering metaphorical ones.
Especially if you happen to be a female athlete growing in the Middle East.
For a select few, what must have seemed like absurd dreams only a few years ago, have turned into reality.
Earlier this month, to celebrate International Women’s Day, adidas released a video of three female Saudi athletes who have succeeded in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
“I am lazy, I am weak, I have no ambition,” the adidas Ultraboost19 video begins.
They are anything but, as the rest of the clip reveals.
On May 18, 2013, Raha Moharrak, looked down on the world from the peak of Mount Everest, having become the first Saudi woman and youngest Arab climber to pull off the feat. The symbolism of the moment hardly needs explaining.
Moharrak, now 32, and other female figures in sports, culture and arts, are at last getting the credit their efforts have merited thanks to the dramatic programme of social change that has swept the Kingdom over the last two years.
As women’s empowerment grows in Saudi, the alpinist, who divides her time between hometown Jeddah and Dubai, remains wary that the next obstacle is never too far away. She has learned to carry the burden.
“It has definitely gotten better over the years,” Moharrak says. “There is opposition, as there is for all who dare to be different. I try to take it as a compliment when things get too heavy, but no matter how heavy such oppositions can be, I never let them pull me down, I find a way to block the noise and ride it out. I remind myself that if I could climb the highest mountain in the would I could rise about all barriers.”
Schools rarely had any dedicated sports programmes for females when Moharrak was growing up and she recalls, with regret, that few of her girlfriends had interest in physical activities. “I longed to be a boy,” she admits.
For the few aspiring female athletes that would not take no for answer, success or failure often came down to one factor; parental support. Moharrak was one of the fortunate ones. And she is keen to pay tribute to her family and other women, whose names remain unknown, that have inspired her success.
“There’s no way I would have reached my dreams without them,” she says. “I didn’t get here on my own. I followed the paths of the trailblazers and stood on the shoulders of the greats that came before me. I found the cracks they made in the glass ceiling and added a few more. We are all, in a way, responsible for the generation that comes after us and we will never break that glass ceiling alone."
At the age of four, Saja Kamal was registered by her father in a football camp at Dhahran housing compound Aramco where her family lived. It was love at first sight.
An academic path that saw her study in the UK and United States meant stints playing for Arsenal soccer school and Northeastern University in Boston.
Since returning home, Kamal, a consultant by trade, has racked up two world records thanks to the Beautiful Game, and her involvement with Equal Playing Field, an NGO that helps empower women in sports.
“I played at the world’s highest FIFA regulated football match ever played by any gender on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro two years ago,” the 29-year-old says. “That’s what got me my first world record.”
The second came by playing in lowest elevation game in the history of football at Ghor al-Safi by the Dead Sea in Jordan.
Football may be the most popular game in the world, accessible to all. But try telling that to a young Saudi girl trying to make it in boy’s world.
“There are still less opportunities for women now, but it was worse then,” she says. “Thing is, this is a universal issue. Yes, Saudi Arabia is still behind compared to the rest of the world, but I see more news about horses than I do about women in sports magazines worldwide.”
Women of all backgrounds and skill levels continue to struggle for sporting equality around the world, and the Middle East has further to go than most.
When asked if societal and cultural taboos have hindered the women's sporting progress in the region, Kamal’s answer is unqualified.
“Yes,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s still difficult in 2019, even after all the changes, to even form a women’s team now. The issue is ‘society’ or ‘parents’. Even if the player is good enough to join a women’s national team or even cover a shoot about sports in a documentary, she often backs out because someone else has an issue with it. ‘What will people say about you?’ It’s somehow made to look and seem shameful.”
Kamal, like her Everest-conquering colleague, had the full backing of her family (“Without my mother and fathers support I wouldn’t be half the person I am today”), and opportunities are, very slowly, starting to present themselves for others with similar ambitions.
Having been one of the first through the wall, she has words of encouragement for young Saudi and Middle Eastern women looking to make a career in sport.
“Keep following your passion and dreams if you know you’re capable, don’t give up when it gets tough because you’re paving the way for the younger generation to come,” she says. “Sports are all around boosting the quality of your life in terms of prevention, rehabilitation, team work, physical health, and community building. Keep an aspect of sports in your lifestyle always.”
Saudi Arabia is the only football-playing nation that has no women’s national team, something that Kamal is looking to rectify.
There’s also the little matter of seeking a third world record. This summer, to coincide with with the 2019 FIFA Women’s’ World Cup in France, Equal Playing Field is inviting 3,500 women footballers to take part in the largest football match to ever take place.
Kamal will be among 3,500 taking to the field in Lyonfor amatch expected to last five or six days.
Moharrak and Kamal have beaten the odds.
Now Lojain Alrefae is helping the next generation of Saudi do the same.
For understandable religious and cultural reasons, many Saudi females are reluctant to be seen in what can be deemed immodest clothing in a Muslim society.
Alrefae, a prominent fitness instructor and the first sports abaya designer, is helping ease the transition in and out of the gym. Fitness, as a vocation, has changed her life.
“I was seeking a lifestyle change,” she says. “I wanted to challenge myself in making a commitment towards improving my health, mindset, and my spirituality. During the process I fell in love with fitness, as it became the vehicle that paved the path towards achieving those goals.”
Having faced the same obstacles as Moharrak and Kamal, she now sees a brighter future ahead for female athletes in Saudi Arabia.
“I felt like there were much less opportunities before,” says Alrefae, who spent the majority of her life living in the US before moving to Jeddah. “However, I am extremely proud and happy with the notion that my daughters will never feel the same way I did, seeing that we are in the midst of building an even playing field for women in the nation. Women are in the forefront and are being empowered to become leaders across all professions.”
Alrefae “proudest moment” came when in 2016 she launched - alongside her husband - Mulu Athletics, a brand that produces ‘athleisure abayas’ inspired by Saudi Arabia’s female national dress.
“The vision of our brand was to bring together our passions of fitness and fashion to influence and inspire people to be active, as well as lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle, all the while maintaining a high-end fashion look,” she says.
The religious and cultural taboos will soon represent no barrier, or, indeed, excuse.
“We are always facing some opposition due to outdated mentalities within our society,” she says. “However, due to great changes in our great nation, that fraction of opposition is becoming irrelevant. We have been given all the tools we need and our ambitions as Saudi women only get stronger.”
We create our own destiny. It all comes down to us. So that eventually these obstacles will disappear. And the girl after me won’t have to fight to be the first. She’ll fight to be the best.
The words that close the adidas video can only ring true in the future if the work carried out by Moharrak, Kamal and Alrefae is taken forward.
The trio, no doubt, will continue to do their part, to scale new heights.
“Because of the amazing luck I’ve had in my climbing career and all the accolades, many assume that my favourite moments would be on the mountain or on a stage,” Moharrak says. “But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for everything, but the moment that tops them all was at Jeddah International Airport where I saw my parents for the first time after Everest. Seeing the pride in their eyes is worth a thousand perfect events summits.”
Moharrak is writing a book as she continues her climbing exploits. Kamal is getting ready for an epic, record-breaking football match. And Alrefae is expanding her athletic brands while inspiring a new generation of girls athletes.
There are plenty of mountains, metaphorical or otherwise, left to conquer.