A young woman in a glistening emerald green abaya with a golden burqa (Emirati eye piece) greets us at the door of a villa in Abu Dhabi. "I wanted to put on the burqa for this interview as a representation of my culture and to channel my (paternal grandmother) Mama Mariam through it," Jouhayna Al Mheiri says as she ushers us in.

The house is replete with plants and paintings reflecting the vibe of a wellness retreat. As I settle down, three dogs try to join in the conversation with a cacophony of woofs – a mix Chihuahua, a French bulldog and a mix retriever. Jouhayna pets them a bit before escorting them indoors so we can speak without many disturbances.

One of the few female Emirati air traffic controllers in the world, Jouhayna is a regular speaker at the Women in Aviation – Middle East Chapter.

"Initially, I was told that the job [of an air traffic controller] is not something I could handle," she says, settling down for the interview. "Well guess what? I was the youngest woman in the facility to make it and now I even teach the next generation of Air Traffic Controllers as an on-the-job training instructor and have nearly a decade of experience under my belt."

Strong influences

Growing up in Dubai, Jouhayna, whose mother is Tanzanian, spent most of her free time volunteering in her mother’s veterinary clinic petting animals and cleaning up after them. "In fact, my mother Dr Hardika, was the first female vet in the country," she says. "She inculcated a strong work ethic in me even when I was as young as 11 and I always had to take responsibility for my choices. It is also where I got my first job description which was to give TLC to the pets and clean up after them," she says.

Another strong influence in her life is her maternal grandmother ‘Baby’, so called because she was raised in an orphanage, and when they were processing her paperwork, they just put that name, explains Jouhayna. "She went to medical school, but after she started her family chose to stay home and raise the children. She later became a fashion designer and worked from home to take care of my mother and aunt, both of whom also went to medical school. They are strong resilient women with pioneering spirits who raised me to be the woman I am today," says Jouhayna with a tinge of pride.

On completing high school, she found herself in a situation that she had to step up and provide for her mother and younger sisters. So, at the age of 17, Jouhayna decided to apply to the Air Traffic Control Program even though she knew that the acceptance rate was only one per cent worldwide.

"(It was a period where) I was lost in life and wasn’t sure what to do but found myself in a situation where I had to look after my family and be independent."

She recalls how she was feeling low after her college applications had been rejected and she had failed to get any scholarship programs. Through it all, she had forgotten about one place that still had not got back to her – the ATC training centre. "When they did call me in for the selection process, I knew it was my last shot and I had to give it my all."

Jouhayna did and was selected.After a rigorous training of two years of which a few months were in the UK, she earned her fully validated Air Traffic Controller certificate at the age of 21, making her the second Emirati woman and the youngest to validate from the facility.

"In the very first week of joining the ATC, I was told that I won’t be able to handle this job,’ she repeats. ‘Today I have nearly a decade of experience behind me."

Managing the skies

Jouhayna describes being an ATC Officer as a Google Map for pilots in the sky or a voice in a pilot’s headset. She provides them with instructions to keep them safe in the sky staying within the regulations of the international as well as UAE air traffic regulations. The skillset of ATCs include problem solving, critical thinking, multi-tasking, being good at mental math, ability to visualise in 2D and 3D, ability to concentrate to make correct decisions all at the same time.

"A surgeon impacts one life. ATC impacts lives of thousands at any given moment," she says, attempting to put her job in perspective. "Irrespective of gender, the challenges are the same for everyone in this field. It is a high stress environment. In order to understand the gravity of the job, you can equate it to playing a video game with no ‘game over’ option and each blip on your screen has perhaps 100 souls on board." she says.

So how does she cope with handling such a stressful job?

"It’s all about compartmentalisation of thoughts," she says. "For instance, on my way to work, I need to cross a bridge. The moment I pass the bridge, I imagine leaving behind all my problems and begin focussing on preparing for my job.

"You cannot come to work in a bad mood because your coffee was bad or your abaya got stuck in the elevator. It is a job which requires a high level of mental strength and concentration. There will be a lot of challenges which you have to manage at the same time. To put it technically, don’t listen to any interference on your frequency."

Exploring new talents

During the height of the pandemic last year, Jouhayna felt she needed more space and moved into her present villa from her apartment. She adopted two (of the three) dogs, tried her hand at gardening and even found her groove as an artist.

"My friends admired the art since I would display my pandemic creations on the wall, and it sparked conversation which led to people wanting my art and starting the business. I started putting them up on my website and Instagram (@voice.in.a.pilots.headset or visit www.scribblesbyjoh.com). Soon I got commissioned orders for paintings, coffee mugs, t-shirts and tattoo designs," she says.

Inspired by her grandmother’s life story she donates a part of the proceeds from her art to orphanages or schools in Africa "to help educate and nourish other little kids that are in the same situation as my grandmother was decades ago".

She also enjoys quad biking and is in the process of redesigning her BMW R9T to explore the country on road.

Currently she is pursuing her Master’s in Artificial Intelligence keen to be a part of the movement in pioneering automation in air traffic control in a radar environment. "The future of ATC is in automation, I believe and there will be a lot of tools to supplement controllers so you can handle a higher level of traffic. That’s part of the reason why I’m doing my masters in AI."

Her other passion is mentoring the next generation of controllers.

"As the UAE completes 50 years and has proved its prowess in many fields, I am honoured to be an Emirati woman who keeps the skies of my nation safe and impacts thousands of lives in every shift. I am a live example that there are no gender restrictions in ATC. In fact, women are natural multi-taskers. That’s evidence enough that we can handle a job as intense as ATC or anything we choose to put our minds to. So for all the Emirati women interested in this field, I invite them to join me and let’s grow in numbers. I hope my story can inspire others to push for their dreams."

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