She became the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole. But that did not stop 28-year-old Elham Qasimi from going greater "distances". The woman with a firebrand personality has now been given the opportunity to carry the prestigious Olympic Flame for 300 metres at the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay in July.
Elham, who lived in the US till the age of 12, took up gymnastics when she was 6. She has learnt Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial arts technique, and competed nationally in the US, earning gold and silver medals. It was only after getting a bachelor's degree in Business and Marketing from the American University in Dubai and an MSc in Management of Non-Governmental Organisations from the London School of Economics that she pursued her dream of skiing to the North Pole unsupported and unassisted (by natural means and without the use of assistance) in April 2010, which eventually gave her the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch.
One among 8,000 in the world and one among nine in the region, Elham has been chosen for her determination and courage to be the first Arab woman to embark on and succeed in reaching the northernmost tip of the world. Elham says this is "a powerful statement for all UAE women and citizens of this nation". "My carrying the Olympic Torch is a symbol of what dreams, persistence and hard work can do, and should send across a strong message, that through sports anything can be achieved. But to say this honour was unexpected is an understatement. This is the sort of thing that you don't even dream of as it is not something you can put yourself forward for or work towards. As an Arab and as a woman, it is an honour to represent the region and what it stands for, when carrying the Torch," Elham says.
‘Keep pushing forward'
Entering a male-dominated sports sphere, Elham feels that women in this region need to find more ways to express themselves. How? "By simply fulfilling their purpose or dreams in life. Without experiences, you have little to express or contribute to society," she observes, but also feels that times are changing. "Society has experienced four decades of barriers being broken — and that continues to happen. There are always challenges, but neither race nor gender is an excuse to indulge in what naysayers have to say — we just have to keep pushing forward."
She says that women, especially young girls, who dream and aspire to achieve something in life should be flexible and able to adapt to surroundings easily. "They need to adopt the properties of water. Be it a rock, boulder or pebbles, you should be able to flow around it," Elham says.
As Elham has set an example to women across the region for strength, determination and courage, I couldn't refrain from asking her (probably the umpteenth time for her) how she felt about becoming the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole.
"The feeling changes over time," she says. "At first it was at the same time a very humbling and eye-opening experience, realising that you can actually do anything you put your mind to. It was then liberating — in the sense that when an accomplishment is born of your own effort, sweat and tears, its hard-earned fruits can never be taken away. But, ultimately, with time and sharing the story with a lot of different people, and seeing the positive impact up close and personal, I could only feel gratitude for the opportunity to be part of a much bigger story of growth and change."