Mariam Is Deepening the World of Scuba Diving
Meet the Kuwaiti diver and entrepreneur who's building an inclusive community—underwater—by helping more women take the plunge.
My Back Garden is a series about everyday athletes finding connection and balance in the natural world.
It's just after sunrise in Kuwait City, the capital of the small nation of Kuwait along the Arabian Gulf, and professional diver Mariam Al Saif is starting her day with meditation. She centres her body and mind on land before spending the rest of her day underwater. "Diving is all about going really slow—taking your time, breathing in and out. So, I feel like I try to reflect that before the dive starts, and before the day begins", the 27-year-old explains.
By 9:00am, Mariam, founder of the diving excursion company MER, is at the marina, briefing 20 to 30 aspiring divers on the boat's safety features and the timeline of the day's dive. Because of the pandemic's restrictions, she primarily hosts trips for local certified divers and hobbyists right now, but working with beginners, she says, brings her special joy and fulfilment. "Having people message me or come on my trips and say, 'I've actually been really scared of open water, and now I want to get certified', for me, that's the motivation and the drive", she says.
Only two years ago, Mariam decided on a whim to get certified herself while on holiday in Australia. "The process was strenuous", she recalls of the four-day certification that included theory and pool practices before days out diving. "But you can't help but feel so accomplished once you get it".
Mariam's love for the water is in her DNA. She traces her Kuwaiti ancestry back to a long line of divers who retrieved precious pearls to sell to merchants. "[They] held their breath for five minutes at a time with no mask and no snorkel", she says. "I'm able to stay down for 10 times as long as they could, but I still feel that connection. They got to see the land underneath that I am now getting to see".
As Mariam travelled for scuba diving excursions, she fell deeply in love with the sport but had no one to share it with, sparking a new focus and drive in her. "I felt my purpose in my scuba journey when I realised I could create a community for women divers", says Mariam, who eventually left her office job in luxury cosmetics marketing and never looked back. Despite the challenges of navigating a predominantly male sport, as the owner of her own company, she's pioneering a road for women divers and women entrepreneurs in the region.
"I've found work in the sea just as my ancestors did. There is an undeniable pull to being submerged underwater".
"It's rare for women to dive in the Middle East", says Mariam. "But I'm happy to know I've been chosen to create a sacred space for women 50 feet below sea level". Worldwide, women accounted for only 38 percent of certified divers in 2018, a 3.6 percent increase from 2013, according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Their absence in the water is extended in the scarcity of gear designed for women's bodies and the lack of community many women divers feel.
"It is a male-dominated industry. It is, no question", says Mariam, adding that her work is about "bridging that gap in regards to the inequality and just saying that women deserve to be here just as much as men". She hopes to change this with Mer and as an ambassador for Girls That Scuba, a women-only community with a mission to introduce more women to scuba diving while empowering those already in the sport. She uses her platform to raise awareness about gender inequities in scuba diving and to encourage more Middle Eastern women to dive. "You have to be in a relaxed state of mind when you learn to dive", she says. "[And] having a woman [diver] to hear you speaks volumes".
"I felt my purpose in my scuba journey when I realised I could create a community for women divers".
For this day's outing, the boat arrives at the diving location a few miles off the coast and anchors. Sitting on the edge of the boat, the guests prepare to submerge themselves in the deep waters. There's a sense of excitement mixed with anticipation as everyone puts on a wetsuit and a mask that tightly seals their eyes, nose and upper lip. The mask is connected to a regulator mouthpiece, which divers clench between their teeth, forcing them to breathe through their mouth. The regulator is then connected to the scuba tank. Breathing can be the most anxiety-inducing part for most divers. To get ahead of this, Mariam meticulously explains the breathing techniques, answering any questions they have.
"Once in the water, all the weight disappears. It's meditative", explains Mariam. "There's no difference between us and the fish". While exploring the depths of the Arabian Gulf, they find coral reefs brimming with vibrant fish and plant life. "It gives you a whole new appreciation for the fragility of our oceans", she says. "We shouldn't let climate change stop future generations from experiencing the joy of scuba diving".
"I'm happy to know I've been chosen to create a sacred space for women 50 feet below sea level".
For Mariam, it's encouraging to know that people place their diving experiences in her hands and that she's part of growing the sport. "Scuba diving can bring out such a vulnerable side of you. The very thought of women wanting to join my trips, specifically because I run them and they trust me, is humbling", she says. "I've found work in the sea just as my ancestors did. There is an undeniable pull to being submerged underwater".
Words: Jiya Pinder
Photography: Maha Alasaker and Maryam ALMasha'an
Reported: September 2020