At 7:40 AM on 19 May 2013, Samina Baig planted her foot on the summit of history when she became the first Ismaili Muslim woman and the first Pakistani female to conquer Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. Supported by her brother and trainer Mirza Ali, 21-year-old Samina unfurled the national flag of Pakistan and the Ismaili flag and held them proudly aloft.
“It was my dream to raise the Pakistani flag on Mount Everest and I am extremely happy,” said Samina, who in a symbolic gesture of friendship chose to place the Pakistani flag alongside an Indian flag that had been planted by fellow climbers from India. “I can't describe my feelings in words. It was the most memorable day of my life.”
Their climb coincided with the 60th Anniversary of the first successful ascent by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, who reached the peak of Everest in 1953. With the world literally at her feet, Samina's thoughts went out to her countrywomen: “I was thinking about the women of Pakistan, those who are not allowed to get education, those who are not allowed to do whatever they want to do in their lives.”
Born and raised in the small village of Shimsal in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, Samina Baig was the first person to have scaled the 6 000-metre Chaskin Sar peak, which has now been named after her. After personally securing funding from an external agency, she and her brother Mirza set their sights on Everest, which would require a year of rigorous physical and mental training.
The pair followed in the footsteps of storied Pakistani Ismaili climber Nazir Sabir – also from Hunza – who after having conquered numerous other peaks since the 1970s (including a uniquely difficult ascent of K2) became the first Pakistani and the first Ismaili to summit Everest on 17 May 2000.
Mountain climbing is rooted in the history, geography and culture of the people living in Gilgit-Baltistan, but many are unable to pursue it due to a lack of financial resources. Even though other parts of Pakistan also offer mountaineering opportunities, the sport requires greater national support in order to motivate potential newcomers.
“If my family can support me then other families should also support their daughters,” insists Samina, who hopes that her climb will change people's views of what women are capable of. “They should let their daughters achieve their dreams, whether it is mountain climbing or any sport. They should motivate them and become their support system.”
Trainer, mentor and “most supportive brother ever”
Standing beside Samina as she is peppered with reporters' questions, Mirza Ali is brimming with pride for his sister. No one can deny his contribution to her success; drawing on years of his own experience as a mountaineer, he took upon himself to train her. And when he was just 248 metres shy of reaching Everest's summit, he held back and let his sister take the lead so that the world would know that women are just as capable as men.
“I have been using adventure sports to promote the notion of gender equality,” says Mirza, who considers himself an activist for women's empowerment. In a society where men are protective of their female family members – sometimes to the extent of stifling their personal growth – he stands as an exemplary role model.
“My brother has always been my key supporter,” remarks an appreciative Samina. “My brother is my mother, my father, my friend, my brother and my sister. He holds a special place in my life. Wherever we go, we are together. He supports me a lot. He has an important role in my life and in where I stand today.”
The dynamic brother-sister duo have plans to conquer the highest peaks in each of the seven continents. While Mirza embarks on another mountaineering expedition in June, Samina prepares for her final exams with the goal of pursuing her dream alongside her brother.
“As citizens of Pakistan, the youth of the country should remain loyal to the state and they should use their energies and expertise to excel in the fields of their choice,” says Mirza. Having been on many expeditions before Everest, Mirza wants to bring more recognition to his country. “The men of Pakistan should stand by the women and offer them a helping hand whenever required.”
Ismaili Council honours Samina Baig
Samina Baig and Mirza Ali were warmly received at the Karachi and Islamabad airports upon their return to Pakistan on 3 June. That evening, they were also honoured by the Ismaili Council for Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawer, Mardan Areas (RIPMA) and the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board at a special reception held at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. Young artists performed Shoh Muborakbod, a traditional Wakhi folk song, welcoming the young mountaineers to the dinner hosted in their honour.
Speaking at the occasion, Aitmadi Iqbal Walji, President of the Ismaili Council for Pakistan congratulated Samina Baig for making history by becoming the first Pakistani woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He also paid tribute to her parents and siblings for creating opportunities to help Samina, and in particular praised Mirza for training and mentoring his sister in mountaineering.
Firoz Rasul, President of the Aga Khan University was also present and applauded Samina and Mirza for their success. He added that Samina was a source of inspiration for the women and girls of Pakistan. The audience joined in, giving a standing ovation to Khayal Baig, the father of Samina and Mirza, for giving his children the liberty to live their dreams.
Most recently, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recognised Samina's accomplishment as the first Pakistani woman to scale Everest. During a meeting at his office, the Prime Minister congratulated her on her "landmark" achievement, citing her as an example of the courage of Pakistani women and their ability to face challenges. He said that the sport of mountaineering would be promoted by his government.
Reflecting on her accomplishment, Samina wants her achievement to inspire the millions of woman in Pakistan to achieve their dreams: “Women are often underestimated in our society, so my achievement will send out a message to everyone – women are equally capable of achieving great things in life.”