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 under- represented.
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-year-old 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 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 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 the West 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 a Women’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 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. 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 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 of Women 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 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 Ninety-Nines. “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: email@example.com