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Sportswomen from Muslim societies

Friday 25 May 2018, by siawi3


A personal rebellion

22nd May 2018

by sister-hood staff

Raha Moharrak is the youngest Arab to climb Mount Everest, and the first Saudi woman to complete one of the most daunting challenges in mountaineering: the Seven Summits, which involves climbing the highest mountain in each of the seven continents.

She spoke to sister-hood on her accomplishments and the need to develop access to sporting activities for Muslim women.

What do all these accomplishments mean to you?

It means that no one can tell me what I can and cannot do. I am very honoured to be recognised for the magnitude of it; the fact that it’s defying stereotypes. I’m very proud of it. It was personal expression; a personal rebellion. I didn’t go to fit into a particular box. I’m just very lucky to just be around when there’s a revolutionary mood amongst women.

You’re describing this as a personal rebellion – but do you think that by breaking out of your box, you’re going to help more women do the same?

I didn’t set out to be a poster child for rebellion, or to be a role model. That was not my intention. From the get-go, my intention was simply to be who I was. And then I was lucky enough to be one of the first.

You started climbing at an age when many women in Arab societies are thinking of marriage. Was this a definite decision to take an alternative route?

It was a bit like a lot of sirens went off, and I felt, no I don’t want to fit into that. And the expression of mountain climbing – I never really expected I’d be recognised for it. I see myself as an adventurer, a curious person, and I never thought I would be manifested as a mountain climber. It just manifested that way. It could have been anything – but I think it was the fact that mountaineering was so drastically distinct from my own background. Saudi Arabia is extremely flat, sandy and hot, and I went to climb these high, icy peaks!

You climbed with teams, including one called Arabs with Altitude. How do the dynamics in a team work?

Your team is always a mystery box. You arrive and you don’t know what kind of characters you’re going to get – what nationalities, what individuals. You don’t get along with all of them, but the friendships you make are amazing. You don’t have to like them, but you have to trust them.

What has been the most difficult challenge for you so far?

Mountains are a very difficult physical challenge, but the emotional drama of being a woman in this region – that was also very difficult. I climbed 14 mountains, but I climbed so many more emotional mountains to get to them. They were not physical mountains made of ice and rock: a lot of them were emotional, physical and social boundaries. It’s the same strengths you need to get past both of these barriers. On a mountain, it’s not just your physicality that’s going to keep you going: it’s your mental strength.

Did you have to get your father’s permission to climb every single mountain?

Of course! The first was Kilimanjaro. I’ve been on seven continents, on 14 expeditions, and one of the scariest moments of my life was sending that email. I was so afraid as I was about to send it – I was terrified of his reaction. We disagree on how long it took him to get back to me. I say it was ten days – he says it was three. Neither of us will actually go back and check, because we like the back-and-forth. But when you are waiting for something, time moves really slowly. I thought I’d dug my own grave.

How can we increase Muslim women’s access to sports?

The solution is to educate the families first. They have to understand the health benefits of sports, and that it is not just for boys. It’s not just about playing football and winning medals. It’s about being a healthy young girl, a healthy young woman, a healthy mother, a healthy grandmother. You can build all the gyms you want, but if we can’t change this mentality then nobody will come.

How can a girl deal with a family who are unsure about allowing her to take part in sports?

Always ask. Fear should never stop you from asking. Ask! There’s no shame in asking. There’s no shame in failure. There’s only shame in being too afraid to go after what you want. That’s the shame. So never be afraid of asking. You’re going to hear ‘no’. I’ve heard ‘no’. And don’t just ask for something without putting the time in. I didn’t just ask, and then sat down on my bum and watched TV. I trained, and worked, and invested. Instead of buying bags and shoes I wanted, I bought my gear. Instead of flying to an expensive location, I went and trained on a mountain somewhere. You can’t just ask: you have to show that you want it. Someone asked me if I would allow my daughter climb Everest. I said ‘no’. Everyone was shocked. I said if she asked me once, I’d probably say no. If she asked me twice, I would still say no. If she asked me ten times and did some training, and I can see she’s putting the effort in, then maybe I might consider it. You have to prove that you want it.

What impact will the recent changes in Saudi Arabia have on women’s participation in sport?

It’s exciting that at last women will be admitted to sports stadiums in the country. There is a magic to seeing a sport live. There’s an allure. There’s a sense of majesty when you see something live. I want girls to fall in love with that. I want them to be in the stadium and hear the roar. To feel what it feels like to be a winner. I want that for women. I’d like to see more training facilities, more options for women to be active – to see an open-minded view around women in sports. I want the whole nine yards.

What are your next challenges?

I went to New Zealand for three weeks and wrote my autobiography. It didn’t come out very pretty, but I had the concept, and it’s been polished up since then. It’s being distributed around to find the right publisher.



Halet Cambel 1916-2014

8th May 2018

by sister-hood staff

Halet Çambel was one of the first Muslim women to compete in the Olympics. However, she is best known as one of Turkey’s most important archaeologists. Born in Berlin, Halet was the granddaughter of Ibrhaim Hakki Pasha, the Ottoman Ambassador to Germany. Her father, Hasan Cemil Çambel, was a military attaché and a close friend of Ataturk. Her mother, Remziye Hanim was the daughter of the former Grand Vizier. Halet, the third child of the couple, was at first a sickly child suffering from both hepatitis and typhoid. She was frustrated by her parents’ concerns over her health, so at school she shed the heavy clothing they forced her to wear, and exercised in order to increase her strength. Inspired by the heroic knights she had read about in German storybooks she took up fencing under the tutelage of a white Russian emigré named Alexander Nadolsky.

Halet moved to conservative Turkey in the early 1920s, which presented a culture shock to her and her sisters: ‘Coming back here I was eight years old. We were shocked by the black shrouded women who came and visited us at home. My sister and I went to my mother and said: “We don’t want to stay here. We want to go back.†’

She attended a school for girls in Arnavutköy, close to her family’s villa on the Bosporus seafront. She was to live in this villa which closely reflected her scholarship and background throughout her life: ‘Books and magazines are piled high on the steps, rooms and halls are filled with mahogany furniture, faded Japanese screens and other souvenirs of a widely travelled, polyglot family.’

At the age of 20, she represented Turkey as a fencer at the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was a disorganised, amateurish campaign by Turkey, with little preparation for the athletes. At a training camp, her long-term trainer Nadolsky was replaced, and Halet’s technique suffered from the change. Although neither she nor her partner Suat Fetgeri Aşeni won a medal, they were internationally acclaimed for refusing the request of a German official that they meet with Adolf Hitler. ‘We actually would not have come to Germany at all if it was down to us, as we did not approve of Hitler’s regime’, she explained. She was also present to witness the Fuhrer storming out in a fury at African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ historic victory in the 100 metres sprint. Upon her return from Germany, despite her family’s disapproval, Halet secretly married Nail Çakırhan, a communist poet. They were married for 70 years, making a deliberate choice to have no children in order to dedicate themselves to their careers.

After marriage, she studied archaeology at the Sorbonne, including learning Hebrew along with the Hittite and Assyrian languages. She followed this with a doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940, becoming a guest lecturer at Saarbrücken University. In 1947, she joined a project run by the German professor Helmuth Theodor Bossert, who had been teaching at Istanbul University since 1933. Together, in 1948, they discovered the site of Karetepe, an 8th Century BCE Hittite fortress city, in the Osmaniye province. This was located in Southern Turkey’s Taurus mountain range, accessible only on horseback. ‘We heard from shepherds in the village that they had seen a lion’s head in Karatepe, so we went there after the snowstorm and found that the whole hillside was full of historical artefacts,’ she said.

For the next fifty years of her life she was to spend six months annually at Karatepe, becoming an expert in deciphering the hieroglyphics on the site. Since there were no schools in these regions, Halet, along with another of Bossert’s students, spent three hours a day providing education to the children of local villagers, with a particular focus on educating girls.

She uncovered and restored a tablet written in the Phoenician language which allows philologists to interpret the Luwian language, an ancient language, part of the Anatolian group of the Indo-European linguistic group. In the 1950s, she was forced to defend the site when government officials sought to remove the artefacts to a museum which she argued would imperil them. In 1957, the Karatepe site was instead established as an outdoor museum, and by 1960 the Karatepe-AslantaÅŸ Open-Air Museum was opened, providing access to stone reliefs, inscribed tablets and several statues, such as representations of the Hittite Sun God, lions and sphinxes. The museum building was designed by her husband, who had become a successful architect.

She would later challenge the government once more in order to prevent the damming of the Ceyhan River, which would have threatened archaeological sites. She also encouraged villagers to switch from grazing goats to sheep in order to protect woodland around the site. This had an unexpected benefit: villagers were able to sleep more peacefully without goats whining at night. She also worked with a local weavers’ cooperative to discover natural pigments from plant roots to dye their carpets and kilims, finding that these were less likely to fade over time.

Although she was most closely associated with the site at Karatepe, Halet’s expertise in conservation and archaeology was also essential at other sites, including Çayönü, a Neolithic settlement northwest of Diyarbakır, Yazılıkaya/Midas Şehri, a sanctuary in the capital of the Hittite Empire, and Söğüt, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. She also produced numerous publications and broadcasts exploring Turkey’s ancient history. In 1960, she became professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University and in 1976 contributed to the foundation of an archaeology department at The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBĪTAK).

A pioneer and a source of inspiration to sportswomen and scholars alike, Halet Çambel played a unique role in exploring and preserving Turkey’s cultural heritage.