From Mount Everest: A Call for Emancipation

Should Raha Moharrak – Saudi Arabia’s first female climber to scale Mount Everest – displayed the flag, or would it have been more fitting to display a map of the country with portraits of resolute women like her?

Raha Moharrak

Credit: Arab News

Raha Moharrak, a 25-year-old Saudi woman, did what no Saudi man has ever done before: she climbed and proudly stood atop Mount Everest.

Like millions of resilient Saudi women, Raha defied a multitude of crippling artificial impediments. Despite systemic, institutionalized political, religious, economic, and social taboos, Raha showed the world, her country’s misogynistic ruling elites and her countrymen that a fast-growing number of Saudi women will no longer be forced to be subservient to men and to a repressive system that treats them malevolently.

At the apex of her formidable journey, she was seen displaying the flag of the Saudi government—the flag of the country that  denies her the right to drive, travel alone, get a job, register in schools, or legally obtain disease-preventing medication without permission from a male relative (male guardian) even if he is a minor or a convicted criminal.

The questions that have been raised by some Saudis and are worth debating: does the flag represent the country, or does it represent the system that denies women full citizenship? Should Raha Moharrak have displayed the flag, or would it have been more fitting to display a map of the country with portraits of resolute women like her?

These are legitimate questions that deserve public debate among Saudi men and women.

One can argue that the flag does not represent the country, but the autocratic families that rule it. The ruling Saudi dynasties (the Al-Saud and Al-Shaikh) claim ownership of the country as shown by making their cult-like brand of Islam, Wahhabism, the state’s religion, and by naming it after themselves, using the possessive form, “Saudi.”

These two families control the state’s armed forces, wealth, land, foreign affairs, and domestic security. They control its educational, religious, and judicial institutions. They control its houses worship, including the grand mosques in Mecca and Medina. All governors of all regions of the country are members of the ruling family.

The interpreters of the Quran (the State constitution) and the Shariah (the arbitrary law of the land) are mostly descendants of the founder of the state’s official and only recognized religion, their radical brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. The highest religious authority of the land (the Mufti), the head of the ferocious religious police, and most of the state’s judges are also descendants of the founder of the state’s austere religion, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab. Given this total control of the state by these two families, how does one distinguish between the country and its rulers/owners?

Based on this politico-religious structure, one can safely say that there is no distinction between the Saudi state and its rulers.

The country is operated like a company owned by a constellation of shareholders and governed by a board of directors—which, in this case, are the same people. The shareholders and the board of directors consist of Saudi royals and descendants of the founder of the state’s religion such as the Mufti, who is the most outspoken opponent of women’s rights.

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As shown by these facts, it is clear that the Saudi flag that Ms. Raha Moharrak displayed atop Mount Everest represents the country’s absolute rulers and their system, both of which are responsible for denying women their basic human and civil rights.

Instead of unfurling the flag of a misogynistic system, it would have been more revealing had Raha displayed a map of the country with a picture of the true reality for Saudi women–women draped in black–with a caption that reads, “We may be covered, but we will no longer be hidden.”

This thought-provoking statement would have dramatically exposed the true nature of the Saudi misogynistic system and its intentional policy of keeping Saudi society divided along gender, ethnic, regional and religious lines. More importantly, the statement would have generated constructive domestic discourse about the Saudi government’s toxic policies against women.

A defiant protest atop Mount Everest against institutionalized discriminatory policies and practices that target half of Saudi society could not simply be written off as a domestic problem by the international community. Due to the Saudi government’s control over 25% of the world’s known oil reserves and its control over Islam’s two holiest shrines, the international community finds itself in the hypocritical position of supporting a repressive system that many loathe for religious and cultural reasons.

Western democracies are in a particularly embarrassing position

On the one hand they promote and support pro-democracy advocates and fighters in the Arab World; and on the other, they support one of the world’s last absolute monarchies that not only marginalizes women, but openly supports the abolishment of democratic systems.

Because of Saudi oil reserves, it is undeniable that the international community has a stake in Saudi Arabia’s stability and security, but at what cost to the Saudi people? How long can the international community, especially Western democracies, continue to support an absolute system that not only denigrates and mistreats women, but poses doctrinal threats to the cherished democratic values of the Saudi regime’s staunchest supporters and protectors?

Like Raha Moharrak, there are millions of educated and intelligent Saudi women who deserve recognition as full citizens by their government, the respect of their countrymen, and support from the international community, especially freedom-loving men and women.

Many Saudi women are currently striving peacefully toward their full rights, but they need the international community’s support before they conclude that violence is the only option available to them to achieve their legitimate goals—a phenomenon we have already witnessed throughout the Arab World.

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.