A 27-year-old investment manager from the United Arab Emirates has officially set out to become the first Arab woman to set foot on top of the world. Elham Al-Qasimi's cross-country ski trek to the North Pole comes at a time when females across the Middle East are making advances in a range of fields. It also highlights the changing roles of women in the traditionally conservative region.
Elham Al-Qasimi was airlifted to an ice station that floats somewhere between 88 and 89 degrees latitude on Friday and from there began skiing northward towards the 90 degree mark.
Her expedition is expected to take 11 days to complete and cover up to 100 nautical miles.
The journey is unsupported and unassisted, which means she must only use human means of propulsion and can not receive re-supplies or air drops. She is, however, travelling with a guide.
Despite coming from one of the Arab world's most liberal nations, Qasimi has been criticized by some conservative compatriots in the United Arab Emirates who say her polar trek is not appropriate for a woman. However, she insists the critics have been far and few between.
"For every 200 positive messages I've received saying: this is amazing or you've inspired me to do something that I dreamt about but didn't think I could, there is probably one that will say: I don't understand why you are doing this; you are a woman," said Elham Al-Qasimi. "So I think it's a pretty good record."
Qasimi says her general support reflects a changing perception of women in much of the Arab world, but she says she does not believe the sentiment is enough to constitute a women's rights movement.
"One thing I've said in the past about my message to [Arab] women is that it's one woman at a time," she said. "It's not a movement. It's just each woman being herself in whatever area or sphere she feels she excels in. One person at a time, I think, is the best way to move forward because then it's not a thing that's staged, it's just literally history unfolding."
The United Arab Emirates has taken many steps towards greater gender equality recently.
According to government statistics, Emirati females currently make up 66 percent of the government sector workforce, including 30 percent of senior decision-making positions.
But it is not the same situation in most neighboring nations. According to a recent poll by Swiss-based World Economic Forum, which measured opportunity for women in education, health, business and politics, all 14 Arab countries examined ranked in the bottom 30.
A nation that has become notorious for gender inequality is Saudi Arabia, where prominent clerics have issued fatwas saying anyone who encourages the mingling of men and women should be punished by death.
Recently, a female Saudi poet spoke against the fatwas on a televised poetry contest in Abu Dhabi. She ended up becoming the first female finalists on the popular show, but she also received death threats along the way.
Despite the danger, Hissa Hilal refused to pull out of the competition saying her participation sent the right message to women throughout the Middle East.
"It says that Arab women can do this and she's strong enough to do it… And maybe this is a new stage of life especially for Arab women," said Hissa Hilal.