Harper's BAZAAR Arabia: Tell us about your trek to Everest Base Camp – what’s the purpose?
MR: I want to raise awareness about tolerance, inclusivity, kindness and equality for all women via Surviving Hijab, which is a closed women-only group that, with over 622,000 members, is now considered one of the biggest communities on Facebook. I founded it in August 2014. It came from a very dark and desperate place. I was bullied by a society that was making me feel uncomfortable because of my personal choices to exercise faith by covering up.
HBA: It’s in partnership with Facebook. Tell us more...
MR: The group kept expanding, so much so that it caught the attention of Facebook. I was then invited to give a talk at Facebook headquarters in March 2018, followed by a talk at its headquarters here in Dubai. I then applied for the Facebook Community Leadership Award that was launched by Mark Zuckerberg in January 2018 to support community leaders by providing them with monetary support to grow their communities. Out of 6,000 applicants, Surviving Hijab won $50,000 (Dhs183,625) to enhance the activities of the group worldwide.
HBA: And you met Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg?
MR: Yes! It was a really short meeting – around six minutes of her very precious time – but a very emotional one because her book, Lean In, has been like a bible for me. Each time I am preparing for a talk, a Q&A session or a meeting that is going to put me in front of fans, or people who believe in what I do, I re-read the book. It encourages women to seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto. In this male-dominated world, and particularly in this region, if a woman has a strong personality and knows what she wants she is perceived as aggressive – I hate that.
Sheryl Sandberg gave Manal some pointers ahead of her presentation at Facebook headquarters
Got to meet a real-life superwoman yesterday. @manirostom has achieved so many firsts – from being the first Egyptian woman to run the Great Wall Marathon to being the first woman in a hijab in a Nike campaign after she emailed them asking to see more women like her in ads. Manal, thank you breaking down barriers and being an inspiration to us all
HBA: How was it presenting at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto?
MR: It was beyond surreal! We were planning everything online via Skype calls about three weeks before the talk and when I got there the training was intensive. The first time I stood on stage I was so emotional I cried. I honestly don’t know how I did it, but I received a standing ovation from the 5,000 people in the audience. I was so honoured to be there amongst people who didn’t necessarily know anything about me or my religion, yet still really got behind me.
HBA: So, your climb to Everest Base Camp... This is your second trip. Are you more nervous now that you know what it entails?
MR: I am definitely more nervous this time around because this trip is not just about the people who have signed up because they want to go, but because of a cause. I am praying for a 100 per cent success rate. What is giving me nightmares is the thought of anything going wrong – for me to get sick or the girls to get sick. I would love to see us all making it to base camp with our flags and messages. I’m incredibly proud of the team. Some of the girls have zero mountaineering experience, but they are prepared to face something so life-changing.
HBA: You ran a competition to find fellow Surviving Hijab women to join the climb. Tell us about the winners, Ramona and Rama.
MR: I wanted to get to know the girls and to create a virtual bond before I actually met them in real life. At 39 years of age, I feel like I’m good with analysing people’s energies – I can identify a good energy and one that will be a good fit for the team. I got 35 video submissions overall. Ramona spent so much time working on her video, it was one of the best that was submitted and really showed how passionate she was about us, the trip and the cause. As for Rama, she is over 40, she is a mum, she has climbed a few mountains including the highest mountains in Europe and in Africa, so she really understands the challenges that lie ahead. Plus, I want to smash the stereotypes that assume that once an Arab woman gets married she is forced to stay at home or is oppressed. Rama’s husband is fully supportive and so she will help me to reinforce that message worldwide.
Manal has climbed seven of the world's most challenging mountains.
HBA: What do you hope to achieve with your climb?
MR: The trip is an itinerary of two weeks and I want to make as much noise about Surviving Hijab as I can. To show the world what it means to be a hijabi woman living in the 21st century. People don’t get it, they don’t understand. I want to change the false perceptions that assume hijabi women are boring and uneducated, women who don’t play sport or travel. I am hoping by reaching base camp of the highest mountain in the world that my message will make a lot of noise and echo for years to come.
HBA: You’re a role model for so many, but who have been your role models?
MR: Madonna! I like her perseverance and the fact she is self-made and is so innovative. Also Oprah.
HBA: What motivates you, particularly when things are hard?
MR: How far I have come and how many people are looking up to me. My journey isn’t just about me anymore, but how people live their dreams through me and that’s a huge responsibility. But it is also what fires me to keep outdoing myself and outgrowing myself. I need to be the best version of myself every day because if I fail it’s like they fail. Surviving Hijab has definitely exceeded everything I thought it could ever be.
From the March 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia
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