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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Saudi woman blazes a trail

AMMAN May 25.
Saudi Arabia's first woman pilot hopes all women in the conservative Islamic kingdom will one day have the freedom she now enjoys.
Wearing a scarf and a pilot's shirt and trousers, Hanadi Hindi shyly admits she found it difficult to make the transition from a veiled, sheltered life in Saudi Arabia to a much less restrictive routine in Jordan, where she is in training.
``But after seven months in Jordan, I feel I'm a new and different person. Now I can make my own decisions,'' Ms Hindi said as she inspected a small American Piper Archer 2000 plane on the runway in Marka airport near the capital Amman.
Ms Hindi (24), comes from a very religious family from Mecca, home to the holiest of Islamic shrines. Her eyes fill with tears as she mentions her father, who had always wanted to become a pilot himself.
He encouraged Ms Hindi to break with centuries-old traditions and live his dream, brushing off harsh criticism from relatives and friends and sending her to Jordan's Mideast Aviation Academy where she studies flying with two other women and 70 men. Ms Hindi has four sisters and two brothers, and a very conservative mother who is still angry at being forced to let her daughter go. ``Many people in my country were angry and were critical for two reasons: because I was coming to Amman to study flying and because I was travelling abroad without a mahram (male relative escort required by Sharia or Islamic law)''.
``You know, women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, so being a pilot is unthinkable for a woman.''
Saudi Arabia is a religious state where women are severely restricted in all spheres of life by religion and tradition. Women would be punished by religious police, the mutawa, if they did not cover up from head to toe in an abaya, a concealing black cloak. They are prohibited from mixing with men and from travelling abroad or inside the country without a male escort. Only recently did the Government issue identity cards to women. ``At home I wasn't allowed to even visit my girl friends, and when I found I was on my own, I was afraid of both women and men. Now I find it easier to deal with men,'' Ms Hindi said.
Saudi women were thrust into the spotlight in 1991 when thousands of U.S. troops, including women, were stationed in the country for the Gulf War. The presence of Western women encouraged several Saudi women to publicly protest the ban on driving.
Ms Hindi said a breeze, rather than a wind of change, was blowing through Saudi Arabia.
Many women have challenged the customs of Saudi Arabia by taking senior jobs in banks, universities, hospitals and private companies.
She said she would like to return to Saudi Arabia and work for Saudi Airlines but cannot guarantee finding a job in the all-male business. ``I will go back and apply, I'm a Saudi and I love my country,'' she said.
``But I'm convinced women have to struggle for their rights. They are always subordinate to men. It took me a long time to get accustomed to freedom here and to flying with a male instructor.'' — Reuters


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