There are two ways to respond to the media fuss over Saudi woman, Raha Muharraq’s ascent of Everest, the world’s highest peak. In the idiom of our age, we could “celebrate” her success as a first for an Arab woman, particularly one who belongs to a deeply conservative Muslim country. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where it’s prohibited even to drive if you’re female. All Saudi women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian.
The second, more nuanced response to Ms Muharraq’s accomplishment, is to ask why this is a story at all, considering the most recent figures available (end of the 2010 climbing season) show that there have been 5,104 ascents to the summit by more than 3,000 people in the 60 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached ‘the top of the world’. This makes Ms Muharraq one of a horde of people to have conquered the peak. It is worth noting that her success comes 29 years after the first Indian woman, Bachendri Pal, scaled Everest.
Women’s rights groups, amateur sociologists and those who track cultural affairs, will see Ms Muharraq’s ascent as a totemic symbol of change. Many say that this is a sign that change is slowly but surely coming to Saudi Arabia. Till recently, the kingdom did not look kindly upon sporting activity of any kind for women. But just this month, it allowed girls at private schools to play sports, under certain conditions. It is important to note the caveats – only girls at private schools have this privilege; and the ‘certain conditions’ can only be imagined as restrictive to the sort of movement required on the sports field. Perhaps, they may be along the lines of the conditions faced by Sarah Attah, Saudi’s first female Olympic track athlete competitor? She crossed the finish line in London 2012 almost a full lap behind the others, dressed in a long-sleeved green training top, long jogging bottoms and a white hijab – no concessions were allowed for the sweltering heat.
Was she an important symbol of change? Is Raha Muharraq another key sign that Saudi Arabia is more willing to accept that women are equal to men?
That would be utterly Panglossian. In actual fact, Ms Muharraq’s accomplishment is now possible for almost anyone with at least $65,000 to spare, a thirst for ‘limited’ adventure and a desire to have a photo of themselves at the top of Everest.
The commercialization of the Everest experience has been written about all too often. But suffice it to say that 10 years ago, Jamling, the son of Tenzing Norgay, said his late father would have been shocked by the way the mountain was now often climbed by those who had “paid someone $65,000” but didn’t even know how to put on crampons. The great mountaineer Reinhold Messner has gone on record to say that in the process, some of the spirit of adventure has been lost. “By climbing mountains we were not learning how big we were. We were finding out how breakable, how weak and how full of fear we are… (Now) high-altitude alpinism has become tourism and show.’
This is not to rain on anyone’s parade, least of all that of Ms Muharraq and her proud parents. The girl done good. But this is not a blow for greater equality for women in Saudi Arabia. Let’s be clear about that.