BY HASNA’A MOKHTAR
Catchy media headlines often categorize us Saudi women as oppressed and rights-deprived. It is quite understandable because “man bites dog” is more likely to be reported as news than “dog bites man”- something I learned as a reporter.
I am not saying everything is perfect for women in Saudi Arabia. But there is definitely more to us than what meets the eye. I have met, worked with and been inspired by so many brave and tough Saudi women who fought hard to break the barriers. Many of them are unknown because they are not attention seekers and prefer to work behind the scenes.
Three months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting an inspiring group of Saudi women - the climbers who are taking part in “A Woman’s Journey: Destination Mount Everest”, a campaign I am participating in as well. It is an initiative led by HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, founding member of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, to take the fight against breast cancer up to Everest Base Camp (EBC) at an altitude of 5,364 meters. We start our trek to EBC from Jeddah on May 7 and we are due back in Saudi Arabia by the 21st.
There is absolutely nothing “oppressed” about our team. With mixed backgrounds, from different cities and of various ages, our commitment, dedication and inspiration has brought us together and closer. We are determined to prove to ourselves and to the world that “Yes, Saudi women can!” Why Everest Base Camp? When it comes to breast cancer risk, being physically fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle really does matter. This is the message we would like to send to all women.
In a large prospective study that evaluated cardiorespiratory fitness in women ages 20-83, women with the highest levels of fitness were 55 percent less likely to die of breast cancer — and those with the lowest fitness levels had the highest rate of age-adjusted breast cancer mortality. “Women with a moderate level of fitness had a 33 percent lower risk of dying of breast cancer,” stated the study, which was conducted at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, USA.
Becoming and staying fit is no guarantee that any woman will not get breast cancer — but it does appear to significantly decrease the risk.
Fitness was a must, in fact a condition, for this journey. Hiking at altitude is hard work and so we needed to prepare our bodies.
We all started training heavily in February three months prior to the climb. I joined a boot camp. Others trained with fitness coaches. We have had to submit weekly reports to monitor our progress. We have also been consistent in our continuous communication to maintain and boost the overall morale of the group. At moments, when things would get tough for one of us, we would remind each other why we are doing this. We discussed altitude sickness symptoms, hiking gear and equipment, the Do’s and Don’ts, our fears and our anticipation.
Now with only a few days ahead of us before heading to EBC, we are overwhelmed with mixed emotions. Sharing my feelings with Mashael Al-Hegelan, whom I first met on March 22, I jokingly begged her to stop counting down to the trip because it was somewhat scary.
“By taking this journey, we are saying Mount Everest can be climbed by your average person. It is only as scary as you make it, and one step at a time will get you to your goal and you will overcome the obstacle,” replied Mashael.
Mashael is a pulmonary and critical care consultant physician. She is climbing for her grandmother Amaal Shalabi who passed away in 1993 at the age of 55, her best friend Mervat Al-Ajroush who passed away in 2000 at the age of 33 leaving behind two children and, on behalf of another close friend, Muneera Al-Nahedh who is celebrating her 12th year cancer free.
I am so proud of you Mashael and so proud of HRH Princess Reema Al-Saud, Mona Shahab, Hatun Madani, Lina Almaeena, Asma Al-Ghalib, Raha Moharrak, Noura Bouzo, Samaher Mously and Alya Al-Sa’ad.
Thank you all for allowing me to share this life changing experience with you. Let us show everyone what Saudi women are really made of!