Sanaa (AFP) – Dressed in a baggy jumpsuit and a grey paisley veil, 24-year-old Dalia al-Moqadam is an understated pioneer in Yemen — a rare female mechanic in a conservative Middle Eastern country at war.
This week in the rebel-controlled capital Sanaa, Moqadam’s cavernous garage — full of gleaming cars — was a refuge from the three-year conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
For this young Yemeni woman, the biggest worry when starting out was that society, not the violence, would make it hard for her to take on the challenge and follow her passion.
“The difficulties that I faced in the beginning were first of all the field itself — it’s cumbersome. Then there was a fear of how society would view a woman working in this field — would they accept it?” Moqadam recalled.
“And what if society doesn’t accept the idea? Would I be able to work in the field that I love?”
She said that her family and fellow mechanical engineering students at Sanaa University, from which she graduated in 2017, fully supported her entrance into the field.
“But others reject the idea because they don’t have an accurate idea of what mechanics do,” Moqadam told AFP.
“They think it’s all strenuous body work, and that it’s not a suitable field for girls. The society just finds the concept very weird,” she added, standing in front of a Porsche Cayenne.
Yemen, an impoverished Muslim-majority country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, came bottom in the rankings of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report released in November.
The Geneva-based organisation’s report, which tracks disparities in education, health, economic opportunity and political empowerment, placed Yemen below other conservative Middle East states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Yet no one bats an eye as Moqadam shuffles around the workplace, her navy and tan jumpsuit customised with a skirt instead of pants, international car logos and the garage name Natco embroidered across her back.
She checks an oil leak, swiping brown liquid with a bare finger, then dons thick mechanic gloves to work under the hood.
– ‘Not exclusive to men’ –
At the auto shop, located in the upscale southern district of Hadda, clients consult with the young woman about their vehicles.
“Honestly, I was taken aback by Dalia — by her expertise and professionalism in this mechanical work. Despite her age and gender, she’s taken on this tough occupation,” customer Emad al-Azzab told AFP.
“She proved that this job is not exclusive to men,” he added, smiling.
Wearing a smart suit and a pressed shirt, the general manager of the repair centre, Majid Othman, said Moqadam had brought new ideas to the workplace.
“We admire Dalia’s creativity with mechanics,” Othman told AFP.
He said that while it was new for “a conservative society” like in Yemen to have a woman doing the job of a mechanic, it was a good thing, especially for female drivers.
“There are a lot of women driving now in the capital, and so it could be really positive for the maintenance sector to have women available. The female clients may feel more comfortable dealing with another woman than a man,” he said.
Moqadam said it is just “a matter of time” before society gets used to the idea of seeing a woman working under the hood.
“I was the only girl in my class,” she said.
After graduating in 2017, Moqadam took on various traineeships at automotive centres, but a full-time job is more elusive.
The devastating war and a Saudi-led blockade aimed at weakening the Huthi rebels and restoring the government to power has decimated the economy.
Moqadam, who describes mechanics as “awesome”, still has an uphill battle when it comes to securing her role in an all-male field.
There are currently no women enrolled in mechanical engineering at her old university, but Moqadam said it was a supportive environment.
“It was society that looked at me strangely.”