Polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE is assembling a team for the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2017. Next April Felicity will lead a group of 12 women from Europe and the Middle East in skiing to the geographic North Pole, facing many dangers along the way. Adventure Uncovered spoke with Felicity to understand how she hopes the expedition will help build bridges across the growing cultural divide between East and West.
Where did the idea for this expedition come from?
It owes a huge debt of inspiration to the expedition I did back in 2009, which was with a Commonwealth women’s team who skied to the South Pole. After that expedition, the memories and experience that I found most valuable were around the women who’d come from very different backgrounds and very different cultures. It was really full of surprises for me.
Over the years that have followed, there’s been a lot of talk in contemporary culture, particularly in Europe, about the Middle East and the relationship between East and West. As a woman I’m really intrigued and curious about the female perspective in the Middle East. I also know there’s a misconception the other way in terms of how women in the Middle East view women in the West. There’s a real lack of understanding and I think that’s a real pity. I thought that maybe by pulling together an expedition along the lines of the South Pole trip could really come up with some interesting insights.
'It really feels to me as if we’re on a bit of a tidal wave of awareness about where women are, where we need to make improvements.'
It’s an interesting project timing-wise because you could say relations between East and West have never been worse?
Yes, and it’s also interesting because there seems to be a rise of feminism at the moment. These things go in cycles and it really feels to me as if we’re on a tidal wave of awareness about where women are and where we need to make improvements. I think taking aside all the international politics, women from the East and women from the West have a connection. Yet that connection is at risk of being totally lost. It’s a real pity because when you are facing such massive challenges you need that connection, that support, that sense of how can we help, how can we rely on each other, how can we maybe make sense of a situation? It’s hugely important.
The popular perception in the West is that women in the Middle East play a subservient role in society. How much of a motivation is it for you to challenge that idea?
That is the exact perception that I want to explore. Also, women in the West seem to think that women in East perceive them to have no moral standards. That’s what we’re taught is the status quo. In fact, already my first surprise [of the project] is that I’ve had more applications from women in Saudi Arabia than from anywhere else. The kind of women that have come through are those who hold positions of high responsibility. It seems as if they themselves are saying ‘we’ve got so much going on here, things are really changing’, they are full of hope and optimism.
'At the moment the people I’m hearing from are a bunch of very exciting, dynamic, involved women who really want to make a difference and see change.'
You could argue that maybe I’m just appealing to the strata of society that does have more freedom and that for the average woman in Saudi this trip would not be possible. But this is part of the process of finding out. At the moment the people I’m hearing from are a bunch of very exciting, dynamic, involved women who really want to make a difference and see change. Maybe that’s the first perception to be challenged; this idea that women are really oppressed.
What are some of the risks involved in assembling a team like this of people from very different backgrounds and cultures?
This for me is part of the fun of it. On the language side, I insist that everyone has a good standard of English. That may sound really imperial but the reason for that is that English is the global language. When you’re in a storm and everyone’s a bit panicked, adding language difficulties on top is unnecessary. Having everyone speak English reduces an additional layer of danger. This is the approach that I take to expeditions; that you can’t get rid of the risk altogether, and you wouldn’t want to, but you have to minimise it as much as possible. At least to a point where you’re comfortable with it. So I’ve had to be quite brutal in some respects [with applicants]. If people’s English isn’t great, it sounds terrible but there’s no way I can accept that risk. Sometimes you have to make really tough decisions but as long as you’re sure it’s for the right reasons and you can justify that, I think it’s sensible.
Your expedition is setting out with a specific social goal and hopefully will inspire people across cultural divides. How powerful can an expedition be in affecting some kind of social change?
Well, I don’t want to sound too cocky, but already I feel it’s having the effect I hoped for just by announcing the project. It’s created a bit of discussion about whether it’s patronising, people are asking ‘why shouldn’t it be an Arabic expedition organised and led by Arabic people?’. Well, why isn’t that happening? Why aren’t there are Arabic expedition leaders?
'Why shouldn’t it be an Arabic expedition organised and led by Arabic people. Well why isn’t that happening? Why aren’t there are Arabic expedition leaders?'
Already in conversations, I’ve had with people they ask ‘aren’t all the women out there so oppressed they wouldn’t be able allowed to do this?’ Just putting the idea out there is making people think differently. Already I would claim we’re having the effect I hoped [the expedition] would have. We’re trying to get people to think differently and challenge their own perceptions of what is possible and what is not. And if an expedition can do that then it’s been a big success.
Felicity Aston is a British polar explorer, an author, speaker, expedition leader and former Antarctic scientist. In 2012 she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. It was a journey of 1,744km that took 59 days to complete and which gave her a place in the book of Guinness World Records. ‘Pole of Cold: Extreme Cold and Extreme Lives’ was an exhibition, more information here.
Misba Khan, from Manchester, was the only UK woman to be selected onto the expedition. You can see her speak at Adventure Uncovered Live on the “Grassroot Adventure Activism: Inspirational Movements for Positive Change” panel.