A story of great courage and indeed heroism for Hanadi Zakaria Al-Hindi. In Saudia Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane. But Hanadi, like Bessie Coleman a little less than a century ago, did not let the naysayers stop her, and travelled to a different country to pursue her ambition. (And unlike Bessie Coleman, Hanadi's life could actually be in danger because of her refusal to conform to female stereotypes in Muslim countries like Saudi. Who knows when some fanatic Saudi might not decide Hanadi needs to be taught a lesson before she "infects" other Saudi women?
DREAMING of being able to drive a car was never enough to satisfy the high hopes of Hanadi Zakaria Al-Hindi, 33, who broke through the boundaries facing women in the Kingdom by becoming the first female Saudi commercial pilot.
The rules and restrictions preventing women in the Kingdom from undertaking what is considered to be a man’s job only served to encourage Al-Hindi to strive until she succeeded in the career that she had chosen.
“My father always dreamt of having one of his children becoming a pilot, so I decided to get a private jet license even though I knew that I would not receive any official support from my country when I studied to get the license in Jordan,” Al-Hindi said.
Born and raised in Makkah where people place great importance on following Islamic rules and the old customs, Al-Hindi faced rejection from her relatives after she decided to become a pilot.
“I lived a normal life in Makkah and studied at Umm Al-Qura University until 1998 when I discussed with my father the possibility of becoming a pilot. That was the real turning point in my life,” she said.
According to Al-Hindi, she gave up everything for the sake of making her father’s dream come true.
She left university where she was studying English literature in 2001 to study in Jordan’s Middle East Academy of Aviation.
“I spoke with the manager of the academy about the possibility of becoming a student, and he said that it was the first time he had had a request from a Saudi woman and, therefore, he insisted on speaking with my father to make sure that I had my family’s permission,” she said.
Al-Hindi described her first solo flight in 2004 as the beginning of her actual career. “Two days after my solo flight, I discovered that my name was all over the world and that I had become a celebrity. I had calls from my family and friends saying that everyone was talking about the first female Saudi pilot,” she said.
Getting a private pilot’s license was hard work and affected Al-Hindi’s life in ways that she had not expected. Some of her relatives did not want her to meet with their daughters out of fear that she would change their lifestyle and way of looking at the world.
However, she insisted on completing what she had started.
“After I came back from Jordan with a private pilot’s license, I felt that I wanted to make flying airplanes my career for which I needed to study to get a commercial pilot’s license. All of which made me realize that I needed to be sponsored by someone to get a scholarship,” she said.
People that Al-Hindi knew introduced her to Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who offered his support.
“Prince Alwaleed gave me a scholarship, and with his support, I was not worried about the future,” Al-Hindi said. “Before I even received my commercial license, Prince Alwaleed offered me a job as a pilot in his Kingdom Holding Company,” she added.
However, what was difficult for Al-Hindi was not being able to do her job in her own country.
“I was not registered as a pilot with the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) which is why I was not able to fly in my country, and that was really difficult, being a pilot who cannot fly in her own country,” she said.
However, Al-Hindi can write her name proudly in history as she has been included in the book “The 100 Greatest Women in Aviation”, which contains biographies of famous female pilots from the dawn of aviation until today.
The book documents the story of the struggle of women to be allowed to fly airplanes from 1910 until 2009.
In the book, Hanadi Zakaria Al-Hindi was described as the first Saudi woman to get a pilot’s license, in a country where women are still not allowed to drive.
“Although I am grateful for being listed among the 100 greatest women in aviation, I still do not feel that I have fulfilled all my hopes and dreams and that I want to do more for my country,” Al-Hindi said.
After working for several years between Jordan and London, Al-Hindi in 2008 returned to the Kingdom due to her health problems.
“I discovered that I had a kidney stone and had surgery done in the United Kingdom, after which I developed several complications that affected my health and stopped me from flying,” she said.
Al-Hindi returned to the Kingdom and underwent several abdominal surgeries. “I feel better now and hope that I can fly again soon,” she said. “I feel lost without flying but will not return to my job until I feel completely healthy again,” she explained.
Al-Hindi is also thinking of undertaking a flight related job, such as flight dispatcher or flight instructor, which will allow her to be the first in her country for a second time. –SG