Saudi woman ascends to heights unthinkable in her nation
By Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Nawal Alhawsawi earned her wings more than 200 flights ago. Still, when she pulls back on the stick in her small single-engine plane, sending it climbing into the sky above downtown Cleveland, her skin tingles at a million nerve endings.
Every time she flies, a forbidden dream comes true.
Hers is a remarkable ascent for a woman from her culture, Arab Muslim, and from her nationality. Alhawsawi (pronounced al-HOW-saw-we) is one of the first female pilots in the history of Saudi Arabia. The aviation license she carries in her purse contradicts most everything from the world back home.
Women face uncommon restrictions in the Middle Eastern kingdom, one of the most conservative societies on Earth. Far from flying, they are not allowed to drive.
Alhawsawi, a peppy 28-year-old who covers her head in traditional Muslim fashion, broke the no-driving taboo with a nighttime cruise near her parents' home in the holy city of Mecca. She divulges this transgression, like others, with a sudden, happy laugh that melts into a shy smile.
A sense of humor seems to soften the tension of trailblazing
"I speak my mind," she explained, as if acknowledging a potential flaw. "My dad has to deal with a lot of pressure from our tribe."
Her adventures reach so far beyond what most Saudi women experience that she does not quite know how to calculate the differences
As a journalist in Saudi Arabia, she was one of the first women to post her real name above a newspaper story, an act that again had tribal elders knocking on her father's door.
She married an American, a former soldier, and immigrated to his hometown of Cleveland
She got divorced.
At flight school in Ohio and Florida, she was the only woman, the only Muslim, the only prospective pilot from Saudi Arabia. Federal authorities took "a really long look" at her background before approving her for flight training.
Again, that laugh.
Nawal Alhawsawi says flying is just as she imagined. “I get the same feeling of joy and excitement every time I take off.”
Alhawsawi loves her new home but she loves her homeland, too, and she moves between the two worlds like a time traveler, at once tourist and guide -- a modern American Muslim and a daughter of Mecca.
Which is why she says things like, "King Abdullah is a really awesome king. I think it's just a matter of time before women will drive cars, actually."
She drives a 1999 Hyundai around Northeast Ohio. Her goal of flying jetliners will have to wait. A new dream emerged from her work with battered women as a social worker for Cuyahoga County. It's a quest that will again break taboos back home.
Meanwhile, she's pursuing her certification as a flight instructor, a pilot who can teach other Muslim women the path to the heavens.
"As a child I used to dream of flying. Literally, flying," Alhawsawi explained. "It's just like I imagined. When you go up there, in the middle of the clouds, and see the whole Earth below you, it's just so beautiful. I get the same feeling of joy and excitement every time I take off."
On a fall afternoon, she climbed into a snug four-seat plane parked outside of Premier Flight Academy at Burke Lakefront Airport. A scarf covered her head and circled her face. She settled onto a pillow that allowed her to see over the instrument panel. Without heels, she's 5 feet 3.
Flight instructor Bill Auer climbed in beside her and the pair took off for Pittsburgh, swinging out over a white-capped Lake Erie before flying southeast across a countryside dressed in autumn finery. The Ohio River, a silver ribbon snaking through hillsides ablaze in orange, heralded the Allegheny foothills.
Joseph and Joanna McCarthy stood outside of the terminal at Allegheny County Airport, cameras poised. They had never seen their daughter-in-law land a plane but, really, little surprises them since Nawal joined the family.
The couple's 27-year-old son, David, is in Saudi Arabia now, teaching English on a Saudi air force base. He and Nawal hatched the plan after they married in July, a year after meeting at an Islamic conference in Columbus. The teaching gig gives him a chance to explore Islam, which he converted to four years ago, to get to know his wife's family and to practice his Arabic.
After seeing Saudi society up close, he's even more impressed with the young woman he fell in love with.
His wife did more than attend college and learn to fly in Cleveland, David McCarthy notes. She started a career, became an advocate for other immigrant women, and made friends with Christians and Jews.
"That's waaaay beyond the scope of most Saudi women, or men, or really anyone from Saudi Arabia," he said in a telephone interview. "The fact that she can exist in both worlds and thrive, that's something that amazes me daily."
She grew up the oldest of 10 brothers and sisters in a devout Muslim family. Ibrahim Alhawsawi, a successful businessman, encouraged his daughters to pursue education and a career. Still, he held fast to many cultural traditions, as does Nawal. She allowed her father to arrange her first marriage, to an American Muslim who came to Saudi Arabia to teach English.
In 2005, she immigrated to Cleveland with her new husband. When the marriage grew strained, her father counseled obedience. She divorced her first husband and told her father afterward.
She also neglected to tell him about flight school until she graduated in June 2008.
Alhawsawi will let historians decide her place in the record books. A U.S. permanent resident, she remains a citizen of Saudi Arabia and believes she is the first Saudi woman to become a licensed pilot.
One other Saudi woman publicly claims that distinction, saying she earned a pilot's license in Jordan to join the private flight staff of a Saudi prince.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, yet another Saudi woman secured an FAA license, in 1997. The FAA will not name that pilot, citing privacy laws, and Alhawsawi cannot imagine who it could be.
The sky is big enough for three women pilots from Saudi Arabia, Nawal likes to say. Besides, there is a more pressing precedent she hopes to set.
Soon after arriving in Cleveland, she went to work for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children's Services, which liked her Arabic fluency and her experience as a hospital administrator. She became a social worker assigned to abused immigrant women and children, often Muslims.
While the stories of domestic violence unnerved her, the work of her colleagues inspired her. Domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, as in much of the Middle East, is seldom addressed directly and effectively, Alhawsawi said.
"There are shelters. But workers return victims to the abuser," she said. "In hospitals, I've seen abused women contemplating suicide because there was no way out."
Cuyahoga County offered a revelation: "When you give someone help, you can save lives."
She helped to launch outreach efforts in the local Arab-American and Muslim community and impressed many with her passion and skill.
"I don't really question that she can achieve great things," said Dawn Kolograf, executive director of the West Side Community House, a social service agency that worked with Alhawsawi to help refugee families.
"Once she gets started, she's like a fire," said Aminah Abdulhaqq, a fellow social worker. "She's going to get it done."
Alhawsawi left Children's Services last year to focus on college and flight school, but she did not forget what she learned. Her husband is onboard with her new plan.
After finishing coursework at the University of Akron, where she's pursuing a master's degree in marriage and family therapy -- at King Abdullah's expense -- she plans to return to Saudi Arabia and introduce domestic violence training. She will start in her hometown, Islam's holiest city, with high hopes.
"We have a new prince, he's a cool prince, he's awesome," she said.
She sees herself one day piloting jetliners in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates -- Arabic nations where women enjoy more equality -- but not before the new quest is met.
"I feel I have to do this," she said. "I would feel so guilty if all I did in my life, after knowing what I know, is fly.”
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