Dubai: They symbolise the synergy between their country, the UAE — that empowers them to be achievers — and their personal goals that goad them on to participate in nation building. Driven by their passion to excel and be trailblazers, these Emirati women are the face of the modern UAE. On the occasion of the 43rd UAE National Day, Gulf News profiles Emirati women who have ventured into fields previously not considered a career choice for women. And in doing so, they have proved that no goal is beyond the reach of perseverance and hard work.
Captain Salma Al Beloushi (First Emirati woman pilot)
It was a proud moment for all Emiratis when Salma Al Beloushi operated her first flight as a first officer for Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi to Athens on June 9, 2011.
It took years of dedication and hard work for Salma, who initially enrolled in a nursing academy to train as a nurse, to become the first Emirati female A320 co-pilot. “I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper from Etihad Airways and decided to apply for it, although I knew nothing about flying,” she told Gulf News. \
Encouraged by her mother and other family members, Salma joined Etihad in 2007 as part of the airline’s second group of cadet pilots. She completed her initial training at the Horizon International Flight Academy in Al Ain, studying the basics of flying, navigation and various associated technical subjects, completed 750 hours of classroom tuition and 205 hours of flight training in single and multi-engine aircraft. During this time, she passed the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority’s theoretical knowledge and flying exams.
Salma later continued her training at the Etihad Training Academy, completing further ground school technical and aircraft systems training.
Was it difficult for her to get into a field where no women had ventured before? “My English teacher at school had told us that if we wanted to improve our communication skills, the two places where we could do this was either the hospital or the airport where you meet so many people from different walks of life on a daily basis. I was already training as a nurse and I thought why not apply to be a pilot,” she explained.
Salma Al Beloushi
The challenge was to learn technical details and put her nose to the job. “It took me several years and several flying hours to be able to co-pilot a plane. The biggest triumph comes when you have successfully completed a flight and landed the plane,” she added.
Salma feels were it not for the supportive nature of her government, this would not have been possible. “Our leaders believe in the talents Emirati women have and trust us to fulfil these. They have unflinchingly given all the support we need.”
In the next few years, Salma wants other women to take her cue and get into many fields, including aviation. “I believe in what the father of our nation, the late Shaikh Zayed [Bin Sultan Al Nahyan] said. When women are in the international arena like aviation, you do not represent yourself but your nation.
"I want all women to know that they can cross all barriers and get into any field and make their country proud. The country offers opportunities for women to be self-driven, entrepreneurs as well as offers enviable jobs in challenging new fields. Women must take these up. They should uphold the values their families have taught us and the values this nation stands for when they represent the country to the world. Nothing is impossible.”
Dr Ayehsa Sultan Al Suwaidi, First Emirati woman dental surgeon
Dentistry was a branch that fascinated Dr Ayesha since her school days in the early Seventies. “I recall when we were finishing high school in 1976, we were asked to choose a stream where we would be granted a scholarship.
Those days, there were hardly any dentists around and the few who were there were all expatriates. So when I was asked to fill up the form at school, we had to list 14 specialities in order of choice and I listed dentist in all 14! That was how strongly I wanted to get into this field,” Dr Ayesha told Gulf News. Being the first in her field was not just a novelty in those times but a challenge as well. After completing her bachelors in dentistry from Cairo University, she began her first job at Al Baraha Hospital.
Dr Ayesha Sultan Al Suwaidi
In establishing her credentials, she had to face several challenges: “Patients expected a male doctor and when they saw a lady and a local one at that, they immediately left the consulting room. It became so embarrassing for me that I began going into the waiting area and telling my patients that I was an Emirati female dental surgeon and those who did not like the fact could leave,” recalled Dr Ayesha of how she had to gain acceptance and validation from her patients.
Dr Ayesha continued her higher studies in Cardiff, specialising in gum and aesthetic dental surgery in 1978. Her major triumph came last year when she was appointed head of the Asia Pacific Dental Association which represents 28 countries of Asia. “I became the first woman to get that post and an Arab Muslim woman at that. It felt good,” she said jubilantly.
Dr Ayesha feels without the tremendous encouragement of her government, her success would not have been possible.
“We have come a long way in the last two decades with more and more women opting to be dentists and one finds the unflinching support of our government that has encouraged Emirati women to dream big and take up jobs in every field, be it medicine, army, space research. Women are in every field and have overcome all hurdles thanks to the support of the UAE government.”
Her wish list is simple. “I would like to see Emirati women overcome more barriers and prejudices and get into every field and be successful in the coming years. This is possible as Emirati women are capable and our government is willing [to support them].”
Nayla Al Khaja, First Emirati woman film director/producer
She had to face criticism, ostracism and stiff opposition but young Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja braved all of it, including the ire of her famil,y to be able to indulge in her passion of filmmaking. “When I graduated from Dubai Women’s College 15 years ago and decided to apply for a film-making course, at Ryerson College in Canada, I never knew I was going to be a pioneer. Nobody does something to be the first. I loved films and was intrigued by the entire process. I recall people asking me, ‘There are no female predecessors in your field, why choose to apply for a scholarship in a field where you are not going to get a job once you return?’”
But that did not deter her. “I had the streak of creativity and entrepreneurship in me,” said Nayla, who not only directed her critically acclaimed maiden movie, Arabana, on the theme of child abuse but also combined art and business to start her own film-making company, D-7 motion pictures, and has been involved in making several documentaries and feature films.
Nayla Al Khaja
Her journey, however, was tough. “I had to face stiff opposition from my family who at one point asked me to choose between family and films. I chose the latter. I was shunned for three years. It took a lot of courage and sacrifice and some very tough years to convince my family that I loved both. In the end, they were convinced and they support me a 100 per cent now. The circle is complete,” she said.
Her highest point in her career was being able to watch her film Arabana in a cinema hall. “That feeling of seeing my dreams translated on celluloid in the pitch dark of a professional theatre made me realise that this is what I was meant to do and reaffirmed my faith in my passion,” she said.
On the occasion of her country’s 43rd anniversary, Nayla is overwhelmed with gratitude for her government. “We are extremely fortunate that we have such a robust and supportive government that believes in its women and seeks to empower them and paves the way for gender equality. All of us are inspired by what they do for us,” she said.
As a film maker, her wish list for Emirati woman is: “I would like to see more and more younger women not let their gender define them or come in the way of their higher studies. They must travel abroad and acquire the specialisation that will distinguish them. I would like our government to have a film fund in general and in particular for women filmmakers that will help us make at least 4-5 indigenous films each year. That is the way forward for our cinema to thrive.”