All Female Crew Land Plane In Saudi Arabia. Not Allowed To Drive From Airport.
The Debrief: An all-female crew landed a plane, but Saudi Arabia won't let them drive. Thing is, many Saudi women don't want to be allowed to drive...
Royal Brunei Airlines celebrated their first ever all-female crew recently, with Captain Sharifah Czarena, Senior First Officer Sariana and Senior First Officer Dk Nadiah landing the Dreamliner in Saudi Arabia.
While it was a landmark occasion, and something certainly to be celebrated (Women in the air! Where will they be next? Underground? Up a tree? In equal positions of power?!) a certain little issue brought it back down to earth. Pun hugely intended. Yep, they landed in Saudi Arabia and yep, despite the fact they landed an entire plane, they are forbidden by Saudi law to drive cars from the airport. Because, in Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive.
It's not as clear cut, though, you may think. In 2006, a government poll detailed how 80% of Saudi women believed women shouldn't drive, which was then directly contradicted by a non-governmental Gallup poll the following year finding 66% of Saudi women and 55% of Saudi men agreed they should.
Since then, there are a lot of significant studies that find both men and women feel a lift of the ban reflects an attempt to westernise the country and weaken their Islamic values; the top line isn't that women aren't able to drive, but they should never need to. It's seen by many as a status symbol, and a reflection of how loved and respected women are.
In 2013, a former lecturer at Al-Lith College for Girls at Um al-Qura University, Mecca, found that 79% of the participants in the poll didn't support the lifting of the driving ban for women. One of the students who took part in the poll said: 'In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen. There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women's driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in.'
A lot of the women who support the driving ban are award-winning scientists, college professors and writers - but the bigger problem emerges when you stop looking at the driving ban in isolation. When you explore the other Saudi Arabian laws governing women, the ban itself starts to look symbolic of a wider, and murkier, issue running through Saudi society and its attitude to women: most prominently, the fact that all women must have a male guardian who exercises similar control over said woman as a parent may do over a child. While a lot of Islamic countries exercise a similar law, in Saudi Arabia it is a lot more strict than is usual: women need approval from their guardian to travel abroad, get a job, with almost everything they would need to do outside of the house reduced to probationary-style privilege. As well as this, a real fear surrounds and governs the majority of female lives: answering the phone, going to mixed-gender shopping malls and even asking a male for directions when lost are all frowned upon.
Yes, a lot of Saudi women may not want the driving ban lifted, but the 'every woman is like a queen' argument swifly breaks down when you read about the harassment, fear and general oppression many Saudi women face every day. But of course, it isn't as simple as applying pressure to the government, and using western influence to try and exact change; as journalist Maha Akeel, a critic of her government's restrictions on women, says: 'Look, we are not asking for ... women's rights according to Western values or lifestyles ... We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models.'.
She, and many others, have pointed out that western pressures to allow women to drive, and be released of their second class citizen status is actually becoming more of a hindrance than a help, and that change and progression needs to occur within the country's own terms, and at its own pace. In other words, the cultural divide is too great, and the pushback on potential reforms by the very women we in the western world believe are being oppressed, too strong to be able to do anything other than cause more problems.
However it happens, though, we do still hope that one day Saudi Arabia might consider allowing those women who want to drive, the right to do so. And that an all-female team who just taxied a plane, might have the option of taking something other than a taxi home. It might be the tip of the iceberg, but you have to start somewhere.
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