Current gender ratios in the aviation industry are likely to remind us of the 1950s. In the US alone, women only represent 5.15% of the pilots ready to fly commercially. And yet, despite these disheartening statistics, one woman in Saudi Arabia made waves in 2004 as the first woman piloting the private fleet of a billionaire prince. Captain Hanadi Zakariya Al-Hindi holds the distinction of being the first woman to be employed as a pilot in a country where woman are still not yet driving.
Her views are summarised in this telephone interview after the world first learned of what she had accomplished: “Women are very capable of taking on any job previously monopolised by men.”
Hailing from the city of Mecca, Al-Hindi’s dreams of becoming a pilot took her to Jordan’s Mideast Aviation Academy. The first historic moment came when she obtained her flying licence in 2014. She was now ready to log the hours and additional training that would allow her to fly commercially. For her dream was still incomplete.
The key to her second historic moment lay with the Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal. The billionaire-investor, prince gave her a ten-year contract to fly the aircraft in his private fleet. His decision was calculated to “[transcend] the traditional role of Saudi women previously confined to working in the health, education and philanthropic sectors. I am in full support of Saudi ladies working in all fields.”
Ranking in the top 50 of Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, bin Talal has been a long a supporter of bringing women into the workforce. The ‘Arabian Warren Buffet’ has thought much about the status of women in some Islamic cultures: “I also demand society to keep away from the culture of opposing women because this opposition is not founded on a Shariah basis.”
Al Hindi’s ten years in bin Talah’s employ allowed her to achieve a Commercial Pilot’s Licence – which will allow her to work for a commercial airline.
And so she waits. Despite multiple offers from other Middle Eastern airlines to, Al Hindi is yet to be offered a position by Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), her preferred company to stay loyal to her roots.
She now spends her time at various forums and aviation conferences around the world. After years spent studying, training, and flying to achieve her licences, the long wait to fly commercially almost made her change her career path. But the forums made her realise something. “I miss the cockpit very much; my passion is to keep flying – it’s my dream to be a commercial pilot…Pioneers face many challenges and obstacles, but we are paving the way for future generations,” she said.
And indeed she has inspired future generations. Yasmeen Muhammad al-Maimani has become the second Saudi woman to obtain a commercial pilot license from the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA). Following Al- Hindi’s footsteps to Jordan and she made her way back to the Kingdom to work for Nexus Company’s flight operation services.
But what’s remarkable is that these two women did not set out to make a statement or change gender perceptions. They are simply trying to follow their dream; raising the glass ceiling was just the result of their strong efforts.
This article was written by Wajiha Suboor.