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 1.
Brittany Bell remembers jumping out of the Twin Otter plane in Dubai with a Saudi Arabian girl strapped to her chest, falling 190 kilometres per hour and starting to worry — not because they were falling so quickly or losing control, but because the girl’s hijab was coming off in the wind.
“I decided to just hold it onto her head for the rest of the dive,” says Bell. “Headscarves aren’t really a safety concern — the worst that happens is it gets loose and starts whipping me in the face — but most of the local girls jump with hijabs on, and if they come off, that can be a big deal.”
Unravelling hijabs are just one of the unique challenges dealt with at Skydive Dubai, where the 29-year-old Bell, a Halifax native, is one of a handful of female tandem skydiving instructors. Due to the physically challenging nature of the job, there aren’t many women teaching this sport — Bell estimates a few dozen across the globe — so they are in especially high demand in the Middle East, where conservative Muslim women aren’t able, or willing, to strap themselves to a male instructor.
And while men still outnumber women when it comes to skydiving (about 85 per cent of those who jump out of the plane, either solo or tandem, have a Y chromosome), there has been an unexpected surge in the United Arab Emirates of local women travelling to Dubai to try the sport, to the point where Skydive Dubai has started actively recruiting female instructors from wherever they can find them — usually Europe or North America — offering lucrative, tax-free salaries as an incentive.
Bell, who has been with Skydive Dubai for two years, says she had been hoping for just such an offer ever since 2007. This was the year when former Pakistan tourism minister Nilofar Bakhtiar was forced to resign after receiving a hug from her male skydiving instructor upon landing a charity jump in France. Islamic clerics issued a fatwa demanding that she be fired immediately.
“That was one of the things that motivated me,” says Bell. “Back when that controversy hit, I only had a hundred jumps behind me, but I said to myself, ‘Eventually, I want to go where I’m really needed.’”
Her decision to purchase a one-way ticket to Dubai didn’t surprise anyone in her family — the youngest of three sisters, Bell is known for her adventurous spirit and spontaneity. She is also the type of person you want strapped to your back while jumping out of a plane: Her wide smile and peppy attitude, coupled with a near-obsessive attention to safety, will put anyone at ease.
Although it varies from day to day, about three-quarters of Bell’s customers on a given afternoon will request a female partner. One of these women is Hamdah Khalid, a petite 25-year-old from Dubai who showed up for her jump in blue leggings and a hoodie emblazoned with a neon-pink peace sign in the middle, underneath which she wore a patterned hijab.