(SWET)ing for the summit: a feminist cultural-studies analysis of Singapore's first women's Mount Everest team.
This article is a feminist cultural-studies analysis of Singapore's Erst all-female mountaineering team to successfully summit Mount Everest. A feminist cultural-studies approach was used to explore the highly male hegemonic domain of mountaineering and the ways in which the Singapore Women's Everest Team (SWET) was situated within the sport and their local Singapore culture. Qualitative, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with six elite-level Singaporean female mountaineers (ages 25 to 39) were conducted by the first author in January 2009, before their attempt to summit Mount Everest. Using inductive analysis and feminist deconstruction, several salient themes emerged from the data: (a) disrupting norms, (b) sexism in extreme sports, and (c) women-centered spaces. The interviewees demonstrated unity as an all-women team as they overcame challenges in their pursuit of climbing Mount Everest. This study attempts to expand the sport studies literature with multicultural and gendered perspectives of female mountaineers.
Mount Everest's strength, beauty, and intimidating presence have long shaped the perception of mountaineers who seek the ultimate challenge of "conquering" the Earth's highest continental crust. Looming at 8,848 meters, climbers who attempt to summit the mountain average a two-month journey from base to summit. Part of the Himalayan range, Everest transcends borderlands, reaching out between Nepal, Tibet, and China. Critical interpretations of the ascents of Mount Everest reveal a history of colonization, class privilege, and masculine hegemony that highlight the ways in which Everest has been symbolized as an "imperial archive," and as the highest male preserve on Earth (Birrell, 2007; Slemon, 1998).
This article analyzes the narratives of six Singaporean female climbers who illustrate how the intersections of gender, race, and social class were negotiated in their attempt to summit Mount Everest. Pulling from the work of feminist scholars such as Birrell (2007), Appleby and Fisher (2005), and others, this article will also attempt to understand the experiences of these women specific to the culture of Singapore. Considered an extreme or "high-risk" sport, mountaineering has seen rising numbers of female participants. Some scholars attribute the rise in the number of women participating in extreme sports to the untraditional nature and non-exclusiveness of such sports (Anderson, 1999). Many argue that extreme sports are built on a different model, a paradigmatic shift, "one in which females and males might see equal opportunities for participation, exposure, monies, respect, and individual and group growth within and through sports" (Rinehart, 2005, p. 238). Yet, critical and feminist perspectives provide slightly different interpretations that illustrate how extreme sports such as mountaineering, ski jumping, and rock climbing have subtly contributed to the exclusion and marginalization of female athletes in order to preserve male dominance. This has been most recently epitomized by the exclusion of female ski jumpers in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where elite competitive women were not permitted to compete due to the extreme nature of ski jumping and because it was deemed by the International Olympic Committee as "too risky" for women (Bennett, 2008).
This study is particularly significant due to the dearth of research focusing on female climbers (Appleby & Fisher, 2005) and mountaineers, particularly women and women of color. This project is also unique in that it examines the experiences of a group of women from Singapore (Singapore Women's Everest Team [SWET]), the first group of women from that country to attempt the summit. Specifically, the purposes of this project were to explore the women's perceptions and experiences of social and cultural influences as participants in the male-dominated sport of mountaineering and to reveal the barriers and challenges they overcame in the pursuit of summiting Mount Everest.
A brief explanation of the culture and country of Singapore is important for situating the women who participated in this study in a specific cultural context. Singapore is an island city-state located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and the tropical climate has temperatures ranging from 72 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year (Tambyah, Tan, & Kau, 2008). The country has a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual population of 4.9 million people (Statistics Singapore, 2009). Spanning about 270 square miles in total area and without natural resources, the need to survive as an island nation dictated that the task of nation-building be exclusively concerned with improving the material conditions of the population (Chua, 1997). Since its independence in 1965, Singapore's economic development and industrialization created a middle-class and continuously upward-striving society (Trocki, 2006). Materialistic idealism is socially embraced, and parents often hope to provide their children with the best education, which is perceived as the path to materialistic success. Academic achievement and excellence are dominant themes in the public schools, where the aim is to produce intelligent and productive workers who will enhance the economic growth and prosperity of Singapore (Wright, 2001). Sport and physical activity, on the other hand, are merely viewed as avenues to health and wellness (Trocki, 2006).
Feminist Cultural Studies
This study employed a feminist cultural studies framework to understand the experiences of these women as well as to deconstruct the cultural meanings that have been attributed to mountaineering, extreme sports, Singaporean culture, and Mount Everest. Simply put, a feminist cultural-studies approach unpacks common, taken-for-granted behaviors and gendered practices that have become normative. The cultural studies piece is important because it provides a lens to understand how gender, race, and class intersect within the cultural milieu of Singapore. This framework also provides the tools to decenter Whiteness and critically analyze the international and cultural experiences of female athletes of color, a population that has been largely absent from the sport studies literature. A very White bias is reflected in the literature about women, and though the sporting world stretches across the globe, many of the "facts" have been generalized from a Western, usually White, view of women (Hall, 1996). Furthermore, Asian women are virtually invisible in the sport literature, in part because of simplistic stereotypes of submissive, subservient Asian women (Hanson, 2005). Therefore, a critical, cultural analysis of the intersections of gender, race, and class is necessary in the study of women of color by discarding the assumption of the existence of a "generic" sporting woman and forming a theory that works toward reflecting the diversity of all women's lives and their struggles towards equality (Hall, 1996).
Additionally, a feminist cultural-studies approach will contribute to the understanding of the relations among cultural practices, the body, and the reproduction of social formations (Cole, 1994). Bergner and Mackie (1993) mentioned that "feminist analysis of culture has centered on the processes that construct and maintain categories of gender and the oppression of women" (p.l). Cultural expectations of femininity and masculinity also underlie analyses of feminist cultural studies (Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, & Kauer, 2004). Given the lack of research that explores the experiences of multicultural women in sport, and the absence of critical scholarship on the sport of mountaineering, this research seeks to explore the experiences of Singapore's first all-women team to summit Mount Everest.
Keeping with the feminist cultural studies framework, the female mountaineers were situated as co-participants in an attempt to break down traditional hierarchies between the researchers and the researched. The researcher's hope was to go beyond a pluralistic gathering of individual voices and engage in conversations that could potentially have a transformative quality for both the first author and the female climbers. Within this particular space of the actual interview and the conversational atmosphere that was constructed by the first author, contextual as well as local meanings were co-created and represented multiple and changing thoughts, perceptions, and norms. Local meanings of Singaporean culture were exchanged by both the researcher and her co-participants so that they collaboratively agreed on language and definitions that most accurately portrayed the thoughts of both the interviewer and interviewee. A semi-structured interview was chosen as the method for conducting this research because it is a powerful research tool for feminist researchers exploring women's experiences and the contexts that shape those experience (Devault & Gross, 2007).
Procedure and Study Participants
The study participants were six women from Singapore, who are part of the elite team of women mountaineers from the Singapore Women's Everest Team (SWET). They had been engaging in alpine training and expeditions as a collective group since 2004. Their ages ranged from 25 to 39 years, and they all identified as Singaporean Chinese. Pseudonyms were chosen for the participants for the purpose of confidentiality.
The first author traveled to Singapore in January, 2009 prior to SWET attempting its summit of Mount Everest. A face-to-face, in-depth interview that lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes was conducted with each participant. The interviews focused on the women's experiences while pursuing the summit of Mount Everest. The first author used Singlish when conducting the interviews, which is a basilectal dialect that draws its roots from several Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil, and English (Chew, 2006).
The subjectivity of the researcher is known as reflexivity, and many feminist researchers maintain that a reflexive awareness is critical in doing political work that aims to highlight the voices of culturally marginalized and devalued groups. The first author is a Singaporean Chinese, who was born and raised in Singapore. At the time of data collection, she was completing her master's degree in an American university's Department of Kinesiology. The first author had also participated in sport climbing for about eight years at an elite level and had represented Singapore at more than ten competitions in Singapore, Asia, and Europe. She was one of only five females who trained under a male coach in the Singapore National team of 30 members. The second author is a United States-born assistant professor and was the faculty adviser of the first author. The second author identifies as a White woman and has participated as a competitive collegiate athlete and currently engages in various forms of physical activity, but has no background in climbing or mountaineering.
When doing critical feminist qualitative research, objectivity is neither possible nor desired, thus making it imperative for the researchers to position themselves within the context of the project and engage in a reflexive political practice (see Lather, 1992). Themes emerged from the data inductively, meaning that the data emerged from the interview transcripts rather than being placed into a priori themes (Kvale, 1996). The first and second author separately analyzed the transcripts and then jointly discussed possible initial themes.
The data were further triangulated by a group of graduate students immersed in a qualitative research group and in critical sport studies literature. Each member of the qualitative group also separately analyzed the data and challenged the first author to take note of what was missing or was left out of the interview text, or offered multiple interpretations of particular themes. By using a collaborative approach, a deeper intellectual analysis took place, allowing for original and competing ideas to generate, checking for heavily biased interpretations, and thus strengthening the trustworthiness and credibility of the findings. As stated by Kvale (1996), "The interpreter goes beyond what is directly said to work out the structures and relations of meaning not immediately apparent in the text" (p. 201). The interpretive analysis was based on the active voices of the participants as well as feminist deconstructions by the authors and the research group. Specific themes emergedfrom the women's voices, but the researchers also looked beyond the text to note what was silenced and avoided. This kind of analysis required an ethical lens so that women's voices were not further silenced, and so that the more nuanced, taken-for-grant-ed discourse that was both present and absent in the transcripts could be extrapolated (Sykes, 2001).
The analysis yielded many interesting and new findings, but this article will present only the three most salient themes and subthemes that emerged from the interviews: (a) disrupting norms, (b) sexism in extreme sports, and (c) women-centered spaces. Some quotes are presented in Singlish and "Hanyu Pinyin," which were originally transcribed from the interviews. The phonetic quality of the participants' voices was displayed through "Hanyu Pinyin." Some quotes end with these ambiguous words, "lah" and "lor," which are used as a form of declaration to facilitate the conversation and a sense of resignation, respectively. These words are indigenous to the Singaporean culture. Presenting the quotes in their original form richly illuminates the voices of the participants.
The women discussed many social and cultural barriers they had to endure and overcome along their journey to summit Mount Everest. Broadly, the main barriers had to do with ways in which these women disrupted hegemonic femininity and male dominance in mountaineering, as well as cultural norms that are indigenous to Singapore society. Because of their training and pursuit of summiting Everest, the women experienced both social exclusion and sexism. They were often seen as disrupting the values and norms of Singaporean culture where education and material wealth take precedence over sport. The following subthemes summarize the ways in which these women were "disruptive" to gender norms, climbing norms, and Singaporean cultural norms.
Resisting Hegemonic Femininity. The study participants, being the first Singaporean women to climb Mount Everest, experienced social and cultural resistance from many people they encountered during their years of training. Two participants mentioned that it was not common for women to participate in sports, let alone mountaineering. Rachel commented, "Basically the people that I meet, their mentality is just that they are not used to women doing the same thing as what they have previously heard that men have done." In addition, Serene mentioned that most women conform to essentialist notions of particular behaviors that are viewed as appropriate, and that mountaineering and other forms of sport were not included in this description of femininity:
If you look at the big picture, most sports already have less women Participation ... it's not instinctive in women to like, want to go and play, you know, kick a ball, climb a tree or go into trekking ... 1 think in general, people have a herd mentality or are, you know, sheep-like.
Cultural attitudes that emphasize hegemonic forms of femininity were also commonly expressed toward these women, which served as reminders that their pursuit was not completely understood or embraced by the general society. Irene recalled a conversation with a male ex-colleague, who said, "Women, as they get older, their value drops you won't be as pretty as before ... don't waste so much [time] in doing all these things."
Similarly, Rachel also faced stereotypical remarks from others saying, "Sometimes my colleague will joke lor, 'Aiyah ... after you climb Everest ... ni jiu jia ren sheng hai zi le' [get married with someone and have children], [giggle] ... I'll be like, 'NO!'" In addition, Emily also talked about Asian women in Singapore conforming to cultural norms:
I am also speaking from a traditional Chinese society way of thinking. Some of my friends are like, besides university] education, they still believe that they should "jie hun, sheng hai zi" [get married and have children], like have a family and then like, maybe don't do anything too risky.
Another participant, Jesse, also faced similar pressure as a woman living in an Asian society that espouses and emphasizes traditional notions of femininity and the importance of women's roles in the family, especially as wife and mother. Jesse explained the difference between the Asian and the Western cultures:
When we meet Americans or Europeans...at the mountains, it's normal, no surprise you know, all women's team, they are just impressed that it's six women and not one [or] two women ... but local people will be ... a bit more skeptical ... That's [a] cultural thing, it's like how we are being brought up since youth, like what women should be doing at this age, ... "why are you not settling down?" ... "Why are you focusing on doing something, it's like a hobby that thing?" you know ... [it's] one of the challenges women will face if you want to be a mountaineer in Singapore.
Females in Singapore are socialized from a young age to acquire feminine characteristics that fit the dominant construction of "woman" that is shaped by a male-dominated model of femininity (Whittington, 2006). Therefore, women athletes often have to negotiate and reconcile the social expectations of femininity and feminine social roles with their athletic pursuits. Sportswomen acquire power and strength physically and mentally, yet they often face the paradox of needing or wanting to fit into socially acceptable forms of femininity (Greenleaf, 2002; Krane et al., 2004). Research on female athletes in Western cultures indicates that they go to great lengths to "perform" hegemonic forms of femininity, such as dressing in hyper-feminine clothes or wearing make-up during competition (Krane et al., 2004). Similar efforts were reported by members of SWET. For example, Emily said, "Sometimes when we attend meetings we wear dresses, you know like normal kind of dresses." She continued, "Some of us are very feminine but we don't hide these aspects or we purposely make ourselves [look] like rugby players." This quote is an example of how the process of triangulation with the qualitative research group served to strengthen the study's interpretation. Two of the members who identify as White and were from Western backgrounds read this quote as ripe with innuendos about masculine gender representation and lesbian sexuality that are often ascribed to female rugby players. However, the first author and another member of the qualitative research group (who has a degree in Asian studies) believed that in Singaporean culture, the stereotype of the butch lesbian athlete was not a salient cultural stereotype. Thus, it was concluded that Emily meant that her identity as a female climber did not hinge on a more masculine gender expression that people expected from her, but one that was most true to her own gender identity.
Traditional notions of femininity are pervasive in Asian culture. Furthermore, there is a social perception that women should perform their roles as wife and mother rather than seek other, more personal pursuits. The women mountaineers not only received external remarks discouraging them from pursuing this sport, but they also experienced internal struggles to overcome the conflict of conforming to societal norms. Therefore, it became a constant negotiation for them to pursue a male-dominated sport in a Singaporean society which emphasizes the traditional Asian standard of femininity.
Disrupting Singaporean Cultural Norms. In addition to negotiating traditional feminine roles and their pursuit to summit Everest, the women mountaineers had to negotiate Singaporean cultural norms related to success. Higher education and career advancement are frequently viewed as the path to success, particularly in material forms. Therefore, most Singaporeans view that selfless dedication to an elite sport is counterproductive (McNeill, Sproule, & Horton, 2003). The women received many negative reactions to their decision to train in and pursue the sport of mountaineering. For example, Irene was told by other people to focus on her job. She said, "They'll tell you like, 'You should think about your career, you should think about whatever,' because being away for like 3 months every year.. .takes a toll on your career lah." Emily also experienced negative remarks from other people who said, "Climbing mountains is a waste of time, it does not achieve anything...there's no medals, there's no prize money, what's the point?"
The women mountaineers' decision to take the unbeaten path posed many challenges. One salient challenge was the lack of funding for all their overseas expeditions. A reason for the lack of funding was that most organized sports in Singapore are education-based--not glorified the way they are in the United States (Wright, 2001)--which made sponsorship and funding for their training and expedition extremely difficult. Emily compared the Singaporean and American sport culture perspectives, "It's not a problem of the sport but sports sponsorship, [which] is ... [in its] infancy in Singapore. ... It's not like in the U.S., where you have like, heavy endorsement deals."
Like in many professional sports, funding opportunities and sponsorship were imperative for the successful completion of SWET's training goals. Finding sponsors to fund their trip became an arduous task for the team and even forced the women to postpone their expedition from 2008 to 2009 due to the lack of resources. Emily described how one potential sponsor reacted to her request for funding:
As we still are raising fund[s], they'll (a local sports forum) say things like, "why should I give you money to fulfill your dream?" And then they'll say, "what about my own dream, I don't go around to ask people to sponsor me." But then in such a way, they are taking it from a wrong point of view because we are going as a national team not as an "Emily and friends" kinda fun thing.
Two participants compared their funding situation with the previous two all-male teams from Singapore and they both echoed that funding was not a challenge for the male teams. Rachel mentioned, "They (2005 male team) don't need to go and source for marketing ... whereas for us, we really need to come together to go through this list of companies." Furthermore, Emily noted:
Actually, they (1998 male team) were a bit better off because ... they were the first team and then back then, they had like the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) funding. And then I think, as a men's team, they have like Tiger Beer (Singapore Brewery Company). You know beer is like a man thing.
Prior to the title sponsorship, all six team members mentioned that they had each spent a substantial sum of money on their own, for overseas training expeditions since 2004, when the team was formed. For example, Irene said, "It has been five years...and then with the funds not coming in and then you have to fork out for every single trip yourself and each trip counting like 10 thousand dollars." Emily said, "Because we only got our title sponsorship this year, so a large part of our previous funds were actually self-funded and I only started working for, like a bit over a year." In fact, many of the women reported that their anxiety about summiting Everest stemmed from thoughts of not returning and leaving their family with the substantial debt they had accumulated during their training.
It became clear that these women needed to constantly negotiate between Singaporean ideals of success and material wealth, and their desire to summit Mount Everest, which essentially subtracted from their career and earning potential. Additionally, sexist and cultural ideologies around hegemonic forms of femininity and success created difficult circumstances for the women to secure funding and sponsorship. The lack of financial resources delayed their trip to Everest at a critical time to attempt the summit after they had been properly acclimatized from their trip to Cho Oyu in 2007. This shows how class and gender intersected for these women. Cultural norms and expectations in Singapore presented unique challenges for these female athletes. Material wealth and success based on income and occupation were valued over the intrinsic motivation of these women to summit Everest--an endeavor that provides no financial success, yet requires substantial financial commitment. The lack of financial support thus became equally challenging as the lack of respect for the pursuit of their sport at an elite level.
Sexism in Extreme Sports
Although the number of women who participate in extreme sports has increased, many female athletes often do so within sexist and even hostile environments where they endure degradation and marginalization (Laurendeau & Sharara, 2008). The study participants described several instances where they encountered sexist behaviors and attitudes in the sport of mountaineering. In many cases, their experiences were trivialized and marginalized by people in their community as well as by mainstream media representations of their team. Additionally, the women experienced sexism confounded by racism, by being treated as the exotic "Other" or as intruders in a male domain. All the women discussed the ways in which they believed their accomplishments had been trivialized and the ways in which many people in the climbing community reacted to them as the exotic outsiders. Their comments are summarized in the following subthemes.
Trivialization. In this study, the women discussed how they experienced paternalist notions of trivialization from men as well as trivialization through mainstream media. Because sport is perceived and constructed as a masculine domain, women are constantly compared to men with regard to their physical and athletic strength and prowess, the result of which is that women are most often associated with weakness and men with strength (Roth & Basow, 2004). In mixed-gendered settings, men will often take over entire tasks instead of allowing women to accomplish moderate-to-strenuous activities on their own (Roth & Basow, 2004). The participants experienced this paternalistic trivialization often, and Jesse commented, "I think it's very natural for a man to pamper a woman...you know...I think they are kinder to us to some extent [laugh]." Emily felt that it is a men's basic instinct to take care of women:
I would say as [a] female [you] have a lot of advantages lah ... for instance we are young and we are female, then like the "Sherpas" (men) are very nice to us and they take care of us and I think they see us like being young and quite cute. If we are a group of men, I think they would not be so friendly to us. And they are friendly not in a "Hum-Sup" (seductive) way, but they are friendly in like, because a lot of these "Sherpas" are like quite old and with daughters so they see us as kids, you know like daughters so they take extra care of us.
This example shows that a paternalistic trivialization of the ability of the women mountaineers to accomplish something independent was subtly demonstrated by their male Sherpas, something that male mountaineers rarely experience. However, this particular climber perceived this paternalistic trivialization as "helpful" for females, and something that gives them an advantage instead of sexist behavior that can inhibit women's progress.
The media also served to trivialize the accomplishments of these women. Jesse gave one example of the team's achievements being overlooked by the media when she commented, "Straits Times (Singapore newspaper) did not report on the women's ascent on Cho Oyu even though we are the first female team from Singapore to scale beyond 8000 meters." This is often the case in Western media, which provides extensive coverage of men's athletic events and little to no coverage of women's sports (Schell & Rodrigeuz, 2000). The media is also a powerful institution where social norms of femininity are often highlighted. Women athletes had long been portrayed as objects of physical desirability to men in photographs of them looking chic and pretty (Messner, 1988). Pictures and photographs that highlight hegemonic femininity more than athletic competence serve to trivialize women's accomplishments. Emily gave an example:
When we first announced our formation right, you know Straits Times, sometimes they do like ... a little cartoon, and then they drew Singapore Women's Everest Team, and ... they drew a woman wearing stiletto shoes, so it's not realistic. It's really, really, very funny because, that was like one stereotypical image, you know. I think it's like to poke fun at us lah, you know, how can a woman climb a mountain?
Some of the participants mentioned that in response to such trivialization, they were even more motivated to prove to others that women are capable to achieve tasks that were thought to be impossible in the past. For example, Serene said, "It's like in the end, the performance will show that it's not true lah and I think that it...motivates me in a way, because we are the underdogs." When a Sherpa commented that women mountaineers were physically weaker than men, Serene responded:
It [motivates me to] want to show that we will not be a burden to you (Sherpa) or we will not cause any trouble ... maybe, make him ... not look down on female climbers.
Jesse also shared the same desire to prove that women are capable of accomplishing the task of mountaineering:
I think that there's a responsibility in us at this moment because definitely, there are people out there who are doubtful about our ability ... Today it's like you need to [be] as strong as a man, but how strong is strong, there's no definition ... so I find that there's some form of stress there. So it's like, no matter how right, the six of us, if there's only one who can get to the top, though as a team right, it's still a success lah, but I think it's not good enough to ... bring the nation's name up lah.
In sum, the women mountaineers had experienced various forms of trivialization through the media or through personal contact with others during the five years they trained as a team. Socially, women were perceived to be unable to accomplish tasks that were previously performed by men. Therefore, these women mountaineers wanted to prove that they could perform beyond the expectations of others.
Objectified as the "Other". The participants reported that they rarely, if ever, encountered other female mountaineers or guides while on overseas mountaineering expeditions. Furthermore, males occupy the majority of positions as leaders, either as coaches or guides. Because of the small number of women in the sport, the participants became "unique" or "exotic," rendering them objects for the "male gaze" (Duncan, 1990). One participant recounted an incident on Cho Oyu, where their team was one of 10 teams on the mountain. After news about the Singapore all-women team broke out in the base camp, several male climbers walked quite a distance to where the Singapore women's camp was situated. Serene recalled:
They walked all the way to see us, you know, the guys, they were like, "Oh, xin jia po mei nu" [Singaporean beauties], "Oh, wo ye yao kan, wo ye yao kan" [I want to see too, I want to see too].. .Suddenly we felt like animals, you know, like they come to the zoo to look at the exhibits....they think it's like a rare species that they walked all the way here just to view.
Rachel also remembered being treated as unique when she said, "Whenever people see us, they [are] like, 'Huh, all female climbers?' They'll be surprised, you know, and they'll come to our tent to visit us then we'll explain our story." Rachel explained why people are interested in the all-women team, "In fact, most people, they take interest in female climbers because they are so few right, they will be like, 'Oh, how did this person fare on the mountain?'" The way in which these women were sexualized was further compounded by the men's response to their presence on the mountain, which mirrored a racialized view of female athletes of color and the animalistic associations that are often ascribed to them (Schultz, 2005; Spencer, 2004).
Women-only and female-centered spaces have been found to create empowering experiences for female athletes (Whittington, 2006). Within these spaces, these female athletes expressed feelings of camaraderie, empowerment, and an opportunity to forge paths for other women in Singapore.
Team Camaraderie. The six SWET members barely knew each other when the team was formed in 2004. However, through five years of training and working together, the team had developed a strong bond. A sense of team identity and cohesiveness was expressed unanimously by all the team members. When asked what mountaineering means to her, Irene said, "To me, now it's more than just the climb, it's because I do everything with the team. This is part of the team's...quest towards Everest." Similarly, Helen expressed, "To me, this Everest expedition is.. .a team journey." Serene also noted that each individual member's effort is important for the proper functioning of the team. She said, "It's like a musical band, you know, a five-piece band, everybody has to contribute. So, if you take out the drummer...it's not complete." The women mentioned that one of the main reasons they became more united was because of their ability to overcome barriers in the pursuit of their common goal. For example, Irene mentioned, "Mountaineering to anybody else.. .is just climbing, but to me, it [is] like running a business because.. .we have to look for our own funds, we've to meet sponsors."
Although disagreements within any sport team are inevitable, the participants were able to overcome most of their disputes peacefully, as Serene reflected, "Sometimes there'll be minor disagreements all that, but I would say that, it had been really, really peaceful and loving." Irene also added, "Like team building, you will form some storms like that. But then our storms were never like...shout and then like bitch fight or whatever and things like that." Emily expressed similar feelings about the team:
We are not confrontational and ... I guess in general, we tend to talk more about things, you know, "sayang" (care) each other instead of like conflict lah, so I would say that we are actually quite nurturing and it's quite nice. There's no prima donna issues, like major ego issues to deal with.
The women mountaineers consistently discussed the advantages of having an all-women team, including the fact that women may be more comfortable in the absence of men. Serene mentioned, "That's why those female teams come out also because they want a space whereby they can also be comfortable and they can feel free to share without, you know, without feeling shy and embarrassed."
Several critical scholars have indicated that in post-colonial attempts to summit Everest, individuals with material resources and wealth traded in the concept of teamwork, as described by our participants, for complete dependence on their highly paid guides. These findings illustrate the dedication to one another of the SWET members, as well as their dedication and commitment to the values associated with teamwork--traits that have apparently been missing from the dominant male narrative (Birrell, 2007; Slemon, 1998).
Empowerment. Another positive aspect of having a women-only space is the empowerment that each team member experienced while mountaineering as a team. The participants demonstrated that such empowerment is more possible in women-only spaces than in mixed spaces. Serene commented, "For me, it's very special to be in the all-female team because I think the support, you know, the kind of condition, the environment that you train in, is very conducive for growth lah." Also, in the absence of male climbers, the women found themselves taking initiative and doing more things independently. For example, Helen said, "A woman, when she's in the company of men, she expects the men to do more things than her." Similarly, Serene recounted an experience she had with a mixed team:
In an all-female team, I find myself wanting to do more, like taking more initiative. Like in a mixed team ... frankly speaking, I will leave it to the guy, even the cooking. Because they will be the ones who will automatically step up, who will take charge ... But in the female team, it's like all of us are expected to be like climbers, do our own thing, you know, to take charge lah, so I find myself being on my toes in a way.
The women mountaineers also suggested several advantages of being in an all-women team. For example, Rachel commented, "It will train women to be more independent ... because in the mountains, you have to be very ... self sufficient ... in terms of physical things like carrying your own things." In addition, Jesse mentioned, "It will build confidence for women because ... it is tough in the mountain so when you gone through it ... it somehow builds a person's confidence, especially women, a sense of achievement." In comparing the different experiences of being in an all-women team versus a mostly-male team, Jesse commented:
When it comes to an all-women team right, the women tend to be more competitive themselves than when they are in a men's team ... especially when I'm in an all-women environment ... I tend to compete myself against other women ... I feel it this way, I may not win, I know I won't win, like for example running, there's so many better runners, but I just feel that I push myself more, so [I] try to win [against] as many women as possible, that kind of thing. When I'm in an environment when there's a mixture of male and female ... I don't feel so competitive anymore.
These female athletes mentioned that the support from each other in the all-women team spurred them to work harder towards their goal. In addition, they learned to take charge and do many things independently. Conversely, in the company of men, they choose not to take charge and allowed men to automatically take up positions of authority. Characteristics such as leadership and an increase in confidence and perseverance are examples of the benefits of an all-women environment. Through women-only outdoor programs, women can "foster 'masculine skills' such as decision-making and taking charge as well as 'feminine skills' such as cooperation, and considering the needs of others" (Whittington, 2006, p. 206). Hence, the empowering experiences reported by the SWET members suggest that women-only spaces can be positive for female athletes.
Opening Paths for Other Women. Being the first all-women team from Singapore, these women defied all odds to achieve something that had been previously performed by men only. Consequently, their accomplishment inspired other women to pursue mountaineering and participate in other sports. For example, Emily said, "A lot of people say, 'we are very visionary, we dare to do something that others don't' and 'you inspire me to run a marathon or do a trek at Nepal.'" In time, a growing number of women took up the sport of mountaineering, as commented by Emily:
Over the years, we've seen more women like in Bukit Timah [a hill in Singapore] training and ... when we give talks to the public, there are a lot of young girls who ask us, "How do you get started?" "How do we learn rock climbing?" "Oh how do I go on a trek to Nepal?"
The team aspires to make the sport of mountaineering more accessible to other women by sharing their experiences and giving advice to those who are interested in the sport. For instance, Jesse said, "One way to move forward after the team [had] accomplish[ed] the expedition...is to organize expeditions for women and it's easy for them to relate to us as well." Rachel also mentioned:
I hope that my team will make a difference lah, in the future of women, to basically make the mountains more accessible to more women ... 'cause really no one will have a clue on how to approach mountaineering 'cause there's no mountains in Singapore. ... So hopefully we'll become the bridge lor, uh, in giving advice, in giving directions, and inspiring women lah to climb mountains.
Jesse commented, "I believe the Women's Everest Team has made an impact on women's sport industry, and ... more women [are] coming out to do, maybe not [just] mountaineering, but other sports." The team hopes that they can continue to provide avenues for women to come together and learn the sport of mountaineering. In so doing, they hope that there will be more women mountaineers in Singapore and more women taking up sports in general.
Discussion and Conclusion
At the time of data collection, the SWET was approximately four months from beginning their ascent to the peak of Mount Everest. Five women from the team successfully climbed to the summit of Mount Everest, making them the first all-women's team from Singapore to accomplish such an endeavor. All six women made it back down the mountain safely. While Birrell (2007) indicated that overcoming barriers and challenges is part of the dominant narrative written about Everest, these women expressed that most of the barriers they faced were not connected with Everest itself, but with the social and cultural ideologies about gender, race, and social class. Expectations of "appropriate" Asian femininity were a constant issue for these women, who were training their bodies and engaging in activities that were still largely associated with men and masculinity in Singapore. This study illustrates the perpetuation of male hegemony in Singaporean society to preserve the status quo of male dominance. Though an increasing number of Singaporean women are joining the workforce, few of them occupy powerful positions in universities, the government, and public and private agencies. Hence the national values system is still predominantly male, conservative, and largely hierarchical (Chng & Sankaran, 2007).
Current critiques of individuals in pursuit of Everest illustrate the unabashed class privilege that people have, paying guides upward of $70,000 to reach the summit to become part of an exclusive club. These critiques most often are directed at teams vying for global recognition in sport by "clienting" their way to the top in order to "re-locate their position on the post-colonial world state" (Slemon, 1998, p. 59). However, for these women, their pursuit of Everest was often devalued because it was in contradiction to Singaporean values around material wealth and success and focused on a personal, intrinsic pursuit. Many of the women also discussed the financial difficulties they faced, from both a personal standpoint as well as the standpoint of securing sponsorship and funding. This complicates the narrative of class privilege regarding Everest and provides a far more nuanced understanding of the complex nature of class and how it impacted the women on this team. These women did not "client" their way up and even had to postpone their attempt after already having trained and become properly acclimatized at Cho Oyu, due to the lack of funding and sponsorship (which was seemingly easy for the previous all-male teams). The intersections of gender with class become further complicated by the larger post-colonial narrative about "conquering" Everest to secure membership to an elusive and exclusive club (Birrell, 2007)
The sexism these women experienced ranged from trivialization of their accomplishments to objectification by individuals in mountaineering and in the popular press. Representing the female climbers in stilettos in the local newspaper exemplifies how these female athletes may have been perceived as a threat to hegemonic femininity and male dominance. One of the ways women's accomplishments have been trivialized in sport is through sexualization, so men can still hold feelings of power over women (Messner, 1988). In addition, the women believed that they were being treated as objects for the "male gaze" in the confines of the male-dominated base-camp community. One participant said she had been "ogled" at by several male mountaineers on Cho Oyu. Rendering female athletes as the exotic "other" and for the purposes of the male gaze perpetuates the animalistic stereotype that women of color often face in their pursuit of sport (Schultz, 2005).
The experiences these women described illustrate how multiple layers of discrimination and degradation occur across the intersections of race and gender. Other studies on women in extreme sports, such as surfing and sky diving, found evidence of sexism and objectification within these spaces (Laurendeau & Sharara, 2008; Rinehart, 2005). However, the current study points to ways in which women of color face different forms of discrimination and challenges. One reason could be that Singaporean women are associated with the localized and globalized image of the "Singapore Girl" represented by the Singapore Airlines' flight attendants. This sexualized image of Asian femininity portrays and values youth, charm, beauty, and exoticism (Heng, 1996). The image of the "Singapore Girl" perpetuates male hegemony and sexualized notions of Asian femininity that exist in today's society and culture.
Though barriers and challenges exist for women participating in this sport, the participants consistently mentioned that being in an all-women team was a positive experience for them. It was in this all-female environment that they developed trust, caring, feelings of power, and social support for each other. Having the autonomy to take charge in many difficult situations allowed them to develop independence and self-confidence. Participation in sports has been shown to help women develop positive experiences and characteristics (Appleby & Fisher, 2005; Krane et al., 2004; Scott & Deny, 2005; Wheaton & Tomlinson, 2001; Whittington, 2006).
This study illustrates that women can unite as a team to overcome many social and cultural challenges in their pursuit of the male-dominated sport of mountaineering. Although people outside their team environment made stereotypical comments, the team members supported and cared for each other within an all-women environment. By resisting dominant social and cultural norms, these pioneering women mountaineers helped other women gain access to the sport of mountaineering. Being role models for aspiring women mountaineers in Singapore, they may continue to ignite social change throughout the sport environment. This could inspire other women to step up and perform new and challenging tasks that have not been previously achieved by women.
This provides a Singaporean perspective of women's participation in sports. Because this study was done within the time frame of a Master's thesis, there were several limitations to this project. Had the first author had more time or had she been living in Singapore, she could have gathered more in-depth information as a participant observer using more ethnographic data-collecting methods. In addition, the study was limited by each participant engaging in only one face-to-face interview; multiple focus groups with 3-4 members of this team would have added richer and more in-depth data as well. However, due to a dearth of research on women of color, this study provides new and interesting findings on a culture that is relatively invisible in the sport studies literature. Future research should focus on studying women from different cultures, so as to expand on the predominantly White-centered perspectives in sport. In addition, the increase of women participating in extreme sports should also lead to future research on the experiences of women pursuing these sports. Finally, the researchers would also like to explore the post-summit experiences of the women from the SWET team.
The research on which this article is based would not have been possible without the support of Sharon Guthrie and Daniel Smith, who were formal members of the first author's Master's thesis committee.
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Tan Leng Goh, University of Utah and Kerrie J. Kauer, California State University, Long Beach
Tan Leng Goh University of Utah
Phone: (801) 581-7558
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|Title Annotation:||Original Research Article; Singapore Women's Everest Team|
|Author:||Goh, Tan Leng; Kauer, Kerrie J.|
|Publication:||Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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