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Lebanon's first woman pilot breaks gender norms

LEBANONS FIRST WOMAN PILOT BREAKS GENDER NORMS

Rola Hiteit, 44, has succeeded in breaking the longstanding male monopoly on piloting planes in her native Lebanon.

For the last seven years, she has been piloting civilian aircraft after having served as a copilot for almost 15 years.

In 1995, Hiteit became the first Lebanese woman to enter the cockpit, following in the footsteps of other female Arab pilots in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.

Her story began in 1993 at the American University of Beirut, where she had been studying mathematics.

One of her classmates showed her a newspaper advertisement in which Middle East Airlines (MEA), Lebanon's national carrier, was seeking pilots.

"They were asking for girls, too," Hiteit recalls. "This motivated us, so we both took the qualification test."

"I ended up passing while my classmate failed," she says, smiling.

In 1993, MEA sent her to Scotland to study aviation. Two years later, she began co-piloting commercial flights.

She recalls how her first flight as co-pilot was to Switzerland, carrying Tammam Salam, a prominent Lebanese businessman who later served as prime minister.

But it wasn't until 2010 that Hiteit made her first flight as a full-fledged pilot, flying from Beirut to Jordanian capital Amman.

Now, when she lands her aircraft at Arab airports, she is frequently met by surprise on the part of both passengers and flight crews.

"Some people don't like the idea of a female pilot," she says. "Some passengers freak out when they learn I'm flying the plane and insist on speaking to male crew members."

"But I've become used to this mentality," she adds.

ROLE-MODEL

Even some of her relatives have trouble accepting her career choice, she says, and insist on treating her as a glorified "flight attendant".

But despite this occasional belittlement, she now serves as a role-model for her younger brother, who also wants to become a pilot.

After starting work as a pilot and getting married, Hiteit resumed studying mathematics, eventually earning a Master's Degree in the field.

"Now I'm pursuing a postgraduate degree in philosophy," she says proudly.

As for her husband, Captain Fadi Khalil, who is also a pilot, Hiteit describes him as her "biggest supporter".

"Since we both work in the same field, we completely understand one another," she says.

Hiteit first met Khalil while studying aviation in Scotland. Now they have two teenage children, who, she says, "have little desire to follow our career paths".

Hiteit enjoyed the distinction of being Lebanon's only female aviator until last year, when MEA began teaching three more women to fly, one of whom has since begun working as a copilot.

"It's very gratifying," she said. "I see myself as a godmother to these young Lebanese women who also want to enter the aviation field."

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