x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Emirati career women tell how they blazed the trail

Dubai College students were told how women overcame resistance from their families and went on to have successful careers.

Salma Al Baloushi, the first Emirati woman to reach the rank of co-pilot with Etihad Airways, signs autographs at Dubai Women's College. Jaime Puebla / The National
Salma Al Baloushi, the first Emirati woman to reach the rank of co-pilot with Etihad Airways, signs autographs at Dubai Women's College. Jaime Puebla / The National

DUBAI // Pioneering Emirati career women shared their experiences and advice with students yesterday.

The forum, Emirati Women Breaking Barriers, was organised as a graduation project by corporate communications students at Dubai Women's College.

"We decided to focus on Emirati women's accomplishments," said Alia Al Sumaiti, one of the student organisers.

"We want to celebrate their stories and also discuss their challenges."

Among the speakers was Salma Al Baloushi, the first Emirati woman to reach the rank of co-pilot with Etihad Airways.

To laughter from the audience, Ms Al Baloushi recalled an incredulous foreign colleague on her first commercial flight.

"He asked me, 'You can fly this plane? I said, 'I fly with my hands, not with my scarf … it covers my head, not my brain'."

The students also created a booklet containing the stories of more than 30 Emiratis believed to be the first women in their field, such as Ahlam Al Shamsi, the first pop star, and Khulood Al Dhaheri, the first judge.

Many of the women described the moment when they had to sway their reluctant families.

Najla Al Awadhi, a former member of the Federal National Council and former chief executive of television at Dubai Media Incorporated, said her family was shocked when she told them she wanted to work in television.

"This was some kind of scandal for them," she said. "They could not believe it… back then the perception was that only foreign women and belly dancers would work in television."

The first step towards success in a non-traditional career is to believe in yourself, said Jamila Al Zaabi, who starting working as a paramedic after her husband died.

"If you believe in yourself, you have to take the second step, which will be addressed to your family. You have to persuade them. And if they say no, this is the start of the challenge.

"You have the ability to persuade, to convince them of your opinion."

When Suaad Al Shamsi told her family she wanted to be an aircraft engineer, her brother refused.

But she continued to try to change her relatives' minds and they allowed her to travel to Britain to study.

"I told them and I was able to convince them, this is my dream, I want success," she said.

As if challenging her to prove herself, her mother made her travel to London alone.

"This was the first time I travelled by myself," Ms Al Shamsi said.

Mariam Al Saffar, a Dubai Metro train operator, urged Emirati women to ignore detractors who criticise them for breaking boundaries.

"The negative people, you can listen to them but don't follow them," she said.

Ms Al Saffar operates the driverless trains when they must be manually controlled, such as during emergencies or for maintenance.

"If you have decided the thing you are doing is true, then that's it, you have to go through," she said.

For pilot Ms Al Baloushi, staying true to her traditions was challenging. She had never mixed with unrelated men before and initially tried to separate herself from the men at her training academy, refusing to even study with them.

"One of the guys asked me, if you are not going to mix with guys, why are you here now?" she said. "You cannot close the cabin and work by yourself. You have to work and mix with men."

During an interview to join the training programme, she was asked: "What are you going to do when you get married?"

"I told them, there are handsome, good-looking pilots. I might marry one of them," she said. "It was just a joke."

She is now engaged, and her fiance is not a pilot.

vnereim@thenational.ae