Overcoming the Odds: How 3 Saudi Female Athletes Are Pushing Boundaries

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Overcoming the Odds: How 3 Saudi Female Athletes Are Pushing Boundaries

Earlier this month, sportswear giant Adidas teamed up with three Saudi athletes who are breaking and pushing boundaries in their respective fields. You might have heard of Lojain Alrefae, a fitness instructor and the first sports-abaya designer, or Raha Moharrak, the youngest Arab and first Saudi woman to summit the highest peak in the seven continents, or Saja Kamal, a two-time Guinness World Record Holder and football player. If you haven’t, allow us to refresh your memory.

Kitted out in Adidas and wearing the brand’s ‘Ultraboost 19’, they were photographed running (both literally and figuratively) the streets of Jeddah.

Here, they talk to Goodness about overcoming the odds and carving their own paths. Enjoy your daily dose of inspiration.

Did you ever know you were destined to break away from convention, to do something outside of the ordinary?
Saja: Yes, I always knew that I was different from a young age. Living with contradictions has always been the consistent theme across. I was born in London to two Saudi parents (and a mother with Palestinian roots). Living with the double standards that such a situation would dictate, I was subconsciously trained to adapt to cultural restrictions, which made it hard to be “normal” or ordinary. I had to conform to two extremes, but it raised me to value being a unique third-culture kid – I was too Saudi for Palestinians, too Palestinian for Saudis, and too “Americanized” to be Arab.
So, yes, I always knew I wasn’t going to be just like everyone else and that I would break out of the conventions that were set for me as an Arab, a Muslim, a woman, and an athlete. If the status quo didn’t make sense to me, I questioned it. If something wasn’t logical – like the law banning me from entering stadiums – I snuck into one to play with the boys.

Lojain: Breaking away from the convention never really crossed my mind as my focus has always been on becoming the best at what I enjoyed the most in life – and that has led me to doing something out of the ordinary.

Raha: I always knew that I was different and that my life would be my own. As far back as I can remember, I dreamt of going on adventures and seeing the world. I wasn’t aware of the circumstances of being one of the first Saudi women to be recognized for this, but if you ask my parents, they would tell you that I was always destined to walk my own path. However, as fate would have it, I wasn’t meant to walk a path at all – I was meant to climb one.

As fate would have it, I wasn’t meant to walk a path at all – I was meant to climb one.

What boundaries have you broken?
Saja: The focus for me was never on breaking boundaries per se; it was always to practice the sport I enjoyed. I wanted to pursue my passion, which was professional football. However, boundaries were broken as a result of that, because I am a female athlete from Saudi Arabia. I was a pioneer in the sports realm and did not have many – or any, for that matter – Saudi female athletes to compete against. I was the first female to do this, but for me it wasn’t important to be the first; it was important that we were able to come to the table and compete for “best”, not “first”.

Lojain: I have broken many mental and physical boundaries throughout my life, and that has inspired me to do the same within my community. I created the ‘Free Flow Abaya’ under my Mulu Athletics brand with the aim of enabling women to be active outdoors without the restrictions of a normal abaya.

Raha: Where gender boundaries are involved, it’s hard to determine what exactly was broken. It takes a few generations for the results to manifest. So I would say that the biggest boundaries I have broken are the limits that were set for women in sports, as well as the acceptance of female athletes across the board. Just recently, I had the honor of walking out with the Special Olympics Saudi delegation in Abu Dhabi, which, for the first time ever, included girls. If that’s not a boundary that has been broken, I don’t know what is.

What threatened to stand in your way?
Saja: Many things threatened to stand in the way of making my dreams a reality, and they still do. My nationality, my gender, my society, people who can’t accept anyone who lives differently than they do. My message is that we aren’t cookie-cutter images of each other; we need to all embrace being our true selves. We should respect other people’s differences even if we don’t agree with them.

Lojain: My fear and hesitation were always the things that stood in my way the most, but I have trained myself to disregard them and keep moving forward.

Raha: Narrow-mindedness – it’s the sole barrier standing between grasping a proper understanding of what sport is and its ability to enrich those who participate in it. Narrow-mindedness is detrimental to my journey, and it hurts what I champion. I come from a culture that has classically viewed sport as a mostly male-dominated pastime. From health issues to social tension, sport has a beautiful ability to melt away so many negative things, and it helps build a person’s spirit and confidence like nothing else.

adidas Saudi Women
Saja Kamal | Photo: Courtesy of Adidas

When people told you that you couldn’t, how did that make you feel?
Saja: Sagittarius people don’t like being told how to live their life or what they can and can’t do. I know that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, and I want others to know it too. Don’t be discouraged; start anywhere and focus. Work hard and you’ll reach your short- and long-term goals. This question reminds me of a quote I read years ago and never forgot; “Everybody is able, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s unable.”

Lojain: It made me want to achieve more and prove to myself that I control my own destiny.

Raha: I feel very sad for anyone who thinks they can tell me – or any determined person for that matter – what I can or cannot do. Sometimes I felt frustrated, and other times I felt rage, but I always used those feelings to help carry me above all the hate and negativity. It’s up to you, as a person, not to let such things pull you down.

Over the years, how has people’s reaction to what you’re doing changed?
Saja: It’s been a cyclical rollercoaster to say the least. I’ve seen waves of liberalism and conservatism come and go. So I guess it depends, but generally the reaction now is a lot more welcoming than before.

Lojain: People are becoming more supportive and are seeing and feeling the value of what Saudi females can bring to our community.

Raha: It’s been a rainbow of reactions. At first, it was shock, so mostly negative. Then, as I progressed, reactions started to change. Today, they’re overwhelmingly positive. I think that’s an amazing progression and a great indicator of the evolution of mentality towards positivity. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I choose to see the light in everything.

The legacy I strive to leave behind is no more tangible than the wind, yet it has the power to move mountains.

How are women in a different position today in Saudi Arabia?
Saja: Women can now own gyms and enter football stadiums. Physical Education is part of the curriculum in all-female schools, and we can drive now. All of this is new.

Lojain: The spotlight is now on Saudi women. We have been enabled through a shift in mindset across the nation. We are supported in launching our own small businesses or taking executive positions in corporate companies. We have been given full access to the tools and resources to create a brighter future for our country.

Raha: I think that we are at the forefront of a new era, which means there are so many records that will be broken and so many boundaries that will break because there’s been a shift in mentality and massive support from all sides of society. We are definitely in a better position.

If there was one thing you could change in the world today, what would it be?
Saja: Equality in sports.

Lojain: Spread more love and kindness. It really is all we need as humans to live a fulfilled life.

Raha: It’s very difficult to choose just one, and that makes me feel very sad. I think that, if I had to list a hundred, it wouldn’t be enough. However, like I said before, I choose to be optimistic so I’ll go with something fundamental but simple. I would eradicate any form of racism and prejudice in the hopes that we would start to care for each other regardless of who we are. 

Lojain Alrefae | Photo: Courtesy of Adidas

What is one thing you would tell your younger self?
Saja: It gets better.

Lojain: Find what it is you enjoy doing in life and use it to make a change in the world.

Raha: Never be afraid of failing. There’s no shame in it. The only shame I see is not trying something new and giving up easily. Fall however many times you need to fall, but learn a lesson from each time. You may end up with scars – but wear them with pride. To not conquer challenges is to never learn the meaning of triumph.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
Saja: To have a hand in making big changes for Saudi women in the sports sector.

Lojain: I hope to be regarded as one of the women who brought new ideas and innovations to the community in a time when the country was going through its biggest transformation. On top of all that, I want to be known for spreading love and kindness and influencing others to see the good in life through a positive mindset and healthy living.

Raha: What I give back can never be weighed, touched, or quantified. The legacy I strive to leave behind is no more tangible than the wind, yet it has the power to move mountains. My contribution to society is the easily said but difficultly done task of showing how attainable our dreams are if we are brave enough to reach for them. If, by sharing my story, I can help even one person move an inch closer to their dream, then my tiny life has left a worthy mark on this amazing universe.

adidas Saudi Women
Raha Moharrak | Photo: Courtesy of Adidas
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