Moving Mountains

Samina Baig is four-feet-nine-inches tall. Mount Everest is 29,029 feet tall.

Yet at just 22-years-old, the unlikely mountaineer from the small, remote village of Shimshal in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, reached the top of the world’s highest mountain. The following year, she went on to ascend the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in seven different continents, in just eight short months.

But Samina’s story isn’t just about climbing mountains; it’s about moving mountains.

“I don’t just reach the mountain tops as Samina Baig. I reach as a [representative] for all women from the countries where people think women are oppressed and thought of as weak and incapable,” she said.

Samina is tiny, but fearless. She speaks softly and seldom, but she relies on her actions instead to communicate important ideals of courage, gender equality, and women empowerment. Her small stature aside, Samina’s historically marginalized identity as a Pakistani-Muslim woman also furthers the notion that she is an unlikely climber. However, her goal is not just to fight this misleading stereotype, but also to shift the existing narrative surrounding Pakistani-Muslim women.

As the first Pakistani woman to summit Mount Everest and the first Pakistani-Muslim woman to climb the Seven Summits, Samina serves as definitive proof that mountaineering has very little to do with biology and everything to do with courage, a trait that does not discriminate against gender or physicality.

“It’s not as if I am just climbing for the sake of mountain climbing,” she said. “We have all heard a lot of negative things about Pakistan: Women are not allowed to go out of their houses, women are not allowed to get an education; the list goes on,” she exhaled a sigh of stress. “But women are working in every field in Pakistan. They are doctors; they are engineers; they are politicians; they are professors; they are jet fighter pilots, and they are also playing different sports including cricket, but Pakistan is always defined by the negative. By climbing, I want to convey a positive message because I live in Pakistan and I know the country very well.”

This “negative” perception of her home country is what Samina uses as incentive to add fuel to the fire of her seemingly limitless courage. Every year with the help of her older brother and mentor, Mirza Ali, she organizes different expeditions with teammates from around the world to prove that Pakistani women can also climb with other people from various countries.

Mirza is responsible for introducing Samina to the sport of mountain climbing. It was his stories of his earlier expeditions that left her starry-eyed and inquisitive until she reached the age of 18. Then, Mirza saw potential in his younger sister and wanted her to experience the exhilaration of mountain climbing not just through his stories, but first-hand.

“In 2010, we felt that I was capable to overcome the challenges of the mountain, so I started my climbing career. Our first expedition was to an [unclimbed] virgin peak [Chashkin Sar] at 6,400 meters,” she explained. “I climbed the peak and the villagers were so happy and so appreciative of what I did that they renamed it Samina Peak.”

The mountaineering siblings pictured on Mount Denali, Alaska. Photo courtesy EXPRESS
The mountaineering siblings pictured on Mount Denali, Alaska. Photo courtesy EXPRESS

This was the first of many accomplishments that the duo would achieve side-by-side, but it was their teamwork and joint perseverance during their Mount Everest climb in 2013 that ultimately fulfilled their shared goal of promoting gender equality—and more. On the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, Mirza and Samina embarked on what they considered to be a “mega event for gender equality.” But, at the final stretch of their two-month long journey, in an act of complete selflessness and incredible humility, Mirza decided it was time to place the emphasis specifically on women’s empowerment.

At just 248 meters short from the summit, he turned back.

“Reaching the summit of Mount Everest is every climber’s dream, but my brother sacrificed this dream to prove that if you encourage your sisters, they can make you proud.”

Her brother’s unparalleled support speaks volumes. It shows the world that the fight for the rights of all women is not a battle to be fought exclusively by women alone. Samina explained that Mirza allowed her to prove her own capabilities, giving her the confidence to inspire all young women just like her. Together, Samina and Mirza made great strides in reinventing the woman’s role in Pakistani society and elevating it so that it is up to par with that of a man’s, but their work is far from over. While mountain climbing will always be apart of their lives, Samina and Mirza are currently working to encourage the youth in outdoor sports and promote mountaineering in Pakistan.

“My brother is the founder of an organization called Pakistan Youth Outreach. This is the platform that we use to promote winter sports and encourage young boys and girls,” she said. Aside from working with their organization, the two also recently traveled to America to promote their documentary, Beyond the Heights, which was produced and written by Mirza.

In the beginning of October 2015, the Pakistan Arts Council of the USC Pacific Asia Museum was happy to host the siblings during their stay in Los Angeles. The council worked in collaboration with Pomona College’s History and Outdoor Education departments as well as the government of Pakistan, which has sponsored the siblings on a multi-country tour, to hold a special film screening of the documentary, which recounts Samina’s journey from her small village to the top of Mount Everest.

Samina and Mirza answered the audience's questions following a screening of their documentary, Pomona College, Oct. 5
A Q&A segment followed the screening of “Beyond the Heights”, Pomona College, Oct. 5

Shaila Andrabi, a past president of the Pakistan Arts Council, worked diligently as the liaison between the council and the college. “Events like this provide an opportunity to bring an international perspective to leading educational institutions as Pomona College,” she said.

Ayesha Kamran, who is currently serving her second-term as President of the Pakistan Arts Council, was also proud to host such young, talented, and forward-thinking people as Samina and Mirza and even more proud to share their inspirational tale to the community.

“These are the kind of people we take pride in showcasing: Young women and men who strive for equal opportunities, think progressively, and work toward equality in whatever field or form they choose—whether the arts or mountain climbing,” she said. “But it’s not just about climbing a mountain; it’s about the thought process behind the journey and what that represents. In my eyes, Samina and Mirza represent the best of Pakistan.”

An inspiration to young females everywhere, Samina tenderly reminds the world to define women not based off of things as trivial as what they are born with, but instead to define women based off of the size of their hearts and the depth of their valor.

Samina is a beautiful human being, but not just for the delicate curve of her lips or for the way her eyes brighten when she smiles coy. Rather, Samina is beautiful for the resilience that cannot be wrested from her heart, for her humanity that has humbled communities near and far, and for her gentle reminder that women need not be defined by their biology.

“If a girl can climb a mountain,” she said with soft-spoken power, “a girl can do anything.”

Photo courtesy Pakistan Youth Outreach
Photo courtesy Pakistan Youth Outreach

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