How to keep a hijab on when skydiving in Dubai: The last of a four-part story

Taking things to the extreme is not uncommon in Dubai. It is home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa; indulgent man-made islands, the Palm Jumeirah being one collection; and was the fifth most-visited city in the world in 2014. Being bold here is expected. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city is a hub for skydiving — particularly for Muslim women.

Accommodating these daredevils requires some logistical foresight; many Muslim women are not willing to do a tandem jump with a male instructor. Skydive Dubai actively recruits female instructors, and Brittany Bell, from Halifax, in eastern Canada, is one of those women. This week, in four parts, we share Bell’s observations of being a Canadian female skydiving instructor in Dubai. Today, Part 4, the final instalment.

Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 here.

Management at Skydive Dubai created and now sponsor the world’s first all-girls Arab skydiving team. Coached by 40-year-old Alena Chistova, a bouncy, blond-ponytailed, very experienced diver brought in from Moscow for the job, the Assar Dubai Ladies Team is comprised of mostly conservative Muslim women, all in their late teens or twenties. At the time they were recruited, each had at least 50 jumps behind them. They spend four to five days per week training at Skydive Dubai with Chistova, completing up to 10 jumps per day, along with a few hours inside, practising different formations and transitions in the on-site wind tunnel. They’ve participated in numerous competitions, including the United States Parachute Association Nationals and the National Skydiving League’s indoor competition held each April.

“A lot has changed since the team first got together,” Chistova says. “At first, the girls wouldn’t do stretching in the morning before jumps because they felt it was improper to do exercises in front of other men, and they wouldn’t even sit in the plane beside other guys. But now, they act pretty much like any other skydiver. I’ve met their families and they all have very open-minded parents.”

Radwa El Ghamry, a former team captain of the Assar Ladies, is a no-nonsense, jeans-and-T-shirt kind of woman who’s been diving since the age of 15. She is 31 and has a bachelor of commerce from Cairo University, as well as a three-year-old son. She works part-time — as an account manager at a local IT firm — and came to Dubai with her husband, who has always supported her sporty endeavours.

“Sometimes I think, ‘What am I doing? I’m a mother, I have a young child who needs me, this sport is too risky,’” she says. “But every time I land on the ground, I can’t wait to get back up in the air.”

When speaking about her faith, she says she’s proud to be Muslim and wears a headscarf while diving. Although it will occasionally turn heads in the skydiving community, this doesn’t bother her.

“Everyone says we’re crazy, and people sometimes think I’m lying when I say I skydive,” she says. “We can’t give hugs and we have to follow our religion, but everyone at the drop zone understands this and mostly we get lots of encouragement. It’s funny, a lot of the foreign competitors will see us and it’s kind of shocking at first, like, ‘Wow, you’re jumping?’ I think the assumption is that girls like us only jump out of planes if we’re with the army. But we’re doing this for love.”

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