Reach for the sky!

Jor­da­nian pi­lot Alia Twal has been shat­ter­ing glass ceil­ings since the age of 16. Now, as a first of­fi­cer for Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines, she’s still fly­ing high. By Anthea Ay­ache

Friday - - Front Page -

It was a bright, clear and sunny sum­mer’s morn­ing as Alia Twal looked out at the cot­ton-wool clouds dot­ting the crys­tal blue sky ahead and down be­low to the sandy coloured ter­rain of her Jor­da­nian home­land. A pic­ture-per­fect day for a pic­ture-per­fect mo­ment, and the 21-year-old couldn’t help but feel an over­whelm­ing sense of pride.

Sur­vey­ing the aero­plane’s flight deck’s di­als, con­trols and in­for­ma­tion dis­plays, she knew there and then that her life’s am­bi­tion had been ful­filled. Young, Arab and fe­male, she was fly­ing a sin­gle-en­gine jet plane for the first time solo some 10,000 feet above sea level. “I’ve made it,” she thought, smil­ing, and it wasn’t for any­one to dis­agree.

Alia, now 26, is an A320 first of­fi­cer for Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines, and one of only 20 fe­male pi­lots to ever fly for the car­rier. As a young woman tak­ing to the skies she is among only a hand­ful in the Mid­dle East to em­brace a ca­reer in which women re­main stag­ger­ingly un­der­rep­re­sented.

It’s a global trend, how­ever, which is steadily re­vers­ing, specif­i­cally in the re­gion where more and more women, de­spite con­ser­va­tive chal­lenges, are demon­strat­ing in­de­pen­dence, de­ter­mi­na­tion and an un­quench­able pas­sion to fly.

Women in the Arab world brave enough to step over the un­marked yet om­nipresent bound­aries in some of the re­gion’s coun­tries must defy years of cul­tural tra­di­tion that has his­tor­i­cally seen them shy away from em­ploy­ment for the sake of moth­er­hood or fam­ily val­ues. While it is agreed that wall is slowly crum­bling, ob­jec­tions from fam­ily and friends still pre­vail, re­quir­ing fierce re­solve on be­half of the fu­ture’s fe­male Arab pi­lots.

“In the be­gin­ning when I told my par­ents I wanted to be a pi­lot af­ter at­tend­ing a ca­reer fair avi­a­tion sem­i­nar, it was a big no-no,” Am­man-based Alia re­mem­bers. “I am an only child so they were very pro­tec­tive and, of course, it was an un­usual route as no one in my fam­ily had been in avi­a­tion be­fore.”

And it wasn’t just protests from her fa­ther wor­ried about his 16-yearold daugh­ter’s well-be­ing or her mother, whose pro­fes­sion as a doc­tor caused her con­cern about the role’s health im­pli­ca­tions, but even peo­ple out­side of her di­rect fam­ily cir­cle.

“I stepped over all the bound­aries,” Alia re­mem­bers. “I fought with my fam­ily, even my neigh­bours! They all told me I should be do­ing some­thing else be­cause aca­dem­i­cally I had other strengths, but they didn’t un­der­stand. In the end it took me one year to con­vince them that I would not be any­thing other than a pi­lot.”

Dare to dream

Alia’s sen­ti­ment is one echoed by many fe­male avi­a­tors in the re­gion, women whose over­rid­ing de­sire to take to the skies has seen them pro­pelled past con­ser­va­tive cul­tural ob­jec­tions. Th­ese women come from all over the re­gion in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, Kuwait, Qatar, Le­banon, the UAE and Bahrain, and Alia, who be­lieves in lead­ing by ex­am­ple, is sure they will in­spire oth­ers to fol­low suit; “When women who don’t dare to to find work. With im­proved tech­nol­ogy and record num­bers of peo­ple fly­ing the globe, the avi­a­tion in­dus­try is boom­ing and is en­cour­ag­ing women to join its fleets.

Women across the globe still ac­count for only five per cent of the Air Line Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion (an or­gan­i­sa­tion rep­re­sent­ing pi­lots fly­ing for US and Cana­dian car­ri­ers) and pi­lots like Alia, who be­lieve at­ti­tudes are chang­ing within the male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try, agree that more needs to be done.

“Peo­ple are be­com­ing more open to fe­male pi­lots,” Alia says. “but even in theWest there aren’t many, in gen­eral we are very lim­ited. In Rus­sia, for ex­am­ple, there are no com­mer­cial fe­male pi­lots at all – at least that’s what air­port staff tell me. I think more needs to be done to en­cour­age it, such as in­clud­ing avi­a­tion classes in school ca­reer days.”

Al­though still rare, sur­pris­ingly avi­a­tion is not a new ca­reer path for women in the re­gion. The Mid­dle East’s first woman pi­lot was Egyp­tian, Lof­tia Al Nadi, who earned her li­cence at the age of 26 back in 1933, and later due to her ded­i­ca­tion at a time when Egyp­tian women were fight­ing to ob­tain equal rights, she gained the sta­tus as aWomen’s Equal Rights Ad­vo­cate in the Mid­dle East. De­spite Lof­tia’s drive and the de­ter­mi­na­tion of oth­ers since her, poor doc­u­men­ta­tion and lim­ited aware­ness of avi­a­tion as a ca­reer op­tion for girls, has meant the num­ber of women in the cock­pit has not main­tained an up­ward tra­jec­tory.

As a young girl, Alia was un­aware her coun­try had pro­duced fe­male pi­lots. “I thought I was be­ing silly ask­ing ‘have there been any fe­male pi­lots in the his­tory of Jor­dan?’” she says. “And I was very sur­prised to hear that there had been five to date.”

It was this small yet sig­nif­i­cant nugget of knowl­edge that pro­pelled

‘It tookme one year to con­vince my fam­ily that I would not be any­thing other than a pi­lot!’

dream or look ahead, hear the sto­ries of other fe­male pi­lots and see their achieve­ments, it will in­spire them.”

And she is not a lone cru­sader. At the Mid-East Avi­a­tion Academy where Alia trained, stu­dents who have en­rolled on the cour­ses in­clude women from Jor­dan, Libya and Nige­ria, while its list of grad­u­ates in­clude women from Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Su­dan and Bahrain, women who are un­doubt­edly not strug­gling

the young Alia to take to the skies and de­spite much fam­ily wran­gling, she be­gan her fly­ing classes in 2006, even­tu­ally grad­u­at­ing as a flight in­struc­tor from the Ayla Avi­a­tion Academy in Aqaba.

“On my first flight as a stu­dent, the mo­ment the plane lifted off the ground, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I had so many emo­tions I couldn’t work them out but I knew that fly­ing was for me, that I would never re­gret my de­ci­sion or all that I had fought for to get to that point.”

A true high-flyer

Alia’s ex­cel­lent grades and love of sin­gle-en­gine planes saw her be­gin her ca­reer as a record breaker. At just 21 she had worked hard enough and well enough to be ac­cepted at the Mid-East Avi­a­tion Academy in Am­man train­ing the pi­lots of tomorrow as the youngest woman in­struc­tor in the re­gion. “I never knew I had the abil­ity to in­struct peo­ple; that I could teach ma­noeu­vres, how to plan and how to think ahead. Of course I was very young, I was 21 and at that time I was the youngest fe­male in­struc­tor in the re­gion.”

How­ever, the record-break­ing role was not with­out a lit­tle tur­bu­lence. wed­dings I re­ceive mes­sages from them – some even in­clude pic­tures of their chil­dren, which makes me happy. I sup­pose they didn’t only re­spect me as an in­struc­tor but also saw me as a friend.”

Af­ter three years in the field of in­struc­tion, Alia moved to com­mer­cial fly­ing and to­day she is not only a first of­fi­cer for Royal Jor­da­nian Air­lines, but she also holds the po­si­tion of gov­er­nor of the Ara­bian Sec­tion of The Ninety-Nines, the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion ofWomen Pi­lots from more than 35 coun­tries, which was founded in 1929 by 99 women pi­lots. Amelia Earhart, the first fe­male pi­lot to ever fly solo across the At­lantic, was its first pres­i­dent. To­day it has more than 5,350 mem­bers around the world and the Mid­dle East chap­ter now has 40 mem­bers from coun­tries in­clud­ing Jor­dan, Bahrain, Saudi Ara­bia, UAE, Al­ge­ria, Qatar and Kuwait.

The women re­cently met in Abu Dhabi to help woman pi­lots find ways to grow and de­velop and also to en­cour­age other women in the re­gion to em­brace the ca­reer.

“We want to tell women in the re­gion ‘If you want to be a pi­lot we are here; you can come and talk to us and we will an­swer any ques­tions you have’,” Alia says. “We also want to show them that we are happy be­ing who we are. It’s time women re­moved their pro­tec­tive shell; we need to raise our voices and we have

‘It’s time women re­moved their pro­tec­tive shell; we need to raise our voices… do what we want to do’

Teach­ing men who were not only at times as much as a decade older and of­ten ill-ac­cus­tomed to re­ceiv­ing in­struc­tions from a woman, posed cer­tain chal­lenges.

“I had com­pli­ca­tions when I was try­ing to teach some stu­dents who were men and over 30 years old,” re­calls Alia. “They didn’t like it when I was telling them what to do and how to do it. A lot of peo­ple would ask me how old I was.”

Like ev­ery bar­rier she had had over­come to get this far, Alia sim­ply equipped her­self with the skills re­quired to over­come the lat­est bump. In the small space that is the cock­pit of a sin­gle-en­gine plane, Alia found her­self break­ing the ice and telling jokes as a way to over­come timid­ity of stu­dents and as a means to en­sure they saw her as a pi­lot and an in­struc­tor, not sim­ply as a woman.

Her tac­tics worked and to this day stu­dents who were once a lit­tle in­tim­i­dated by a woman in­struc­tor re­main in touch. “I am still friends with many of them,” she says. “Over spe­cial oc­ca­sions such as Eid or to en­cour­age more women to do what they want to do and fight for what they want.”

De­spite the chal­lenges, Alia could con­vince any woman that the life of a pi­lot is a dream come true. “You don’t have the rou­tine, you don’t go to work and come home at the same time, you don’t sit in the same traf­fic jams ev­ery day,” she says. “I love the fact that I travel. I visit so many coun­tries, un­der­stand other cul­tures and, of course, I love the free­dom that comes with tak­ing off, land­ing and look­ing at the world from 39,000 feet.”

And does she have to deal with scep­ti­cal pas­sen­gers when she an­nounces her­self as pi­lot over the flight tannoy sys­tem? “When they find out I am fly­ing them it’s too late to com­plain, we are al­ready air­borne,” she says, laugh­ing. “In all sin­cer­ity though, nowa­days peo­ple are proud to see Arab women fly and see that they are suc­cess­ful; it’s good for women and women in Arab coun­tries.”

It is this pas­sion that en­cour­ages Alia to steer women in the re­gion to­wards shak­ing off the shack­les of tra­di­tion. “I see my­self cre­at­ing a wave of change and be­ing a part of it,” she says. “I dream big and I don’t let the opin­ion of oth­ers stop me.”

As for the fu­ture, the sky’s the limit for Alia, who in­tends to ob­tain her aer­o­batic and sea plane li­cences while jug­gling be­ing a com­mer­cial pi­lot and gov­er­nor of The Nine­tyNines. “Af­ter I am done maybe it will be time to re­lax and be­come an as­tro­naut... that’s my real dream!” For more info on The Ninety-Nines Ara­bian sec­tion email Alia: twalalia@gmail.com

From the age of 16, Alia knew she wanted to be a pi­lot

Alia en­cour­ages Arab women to fol­low their dreams

Alia, cen­tre, in Abu Dhabi with mem­bers of The Ninety-Nines

Alia was the youngest woman to train the pi­lots of tomorrow

Alia fol­lowed Yvonne True­man as gov­er­nor of the Ara­bian Sec­tion of The Ninety-Nines

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