In a country where women are banned from driving, Royal Brunei Airlines’ first all-female pilot crew lands in Saudi Arabia.
By: Roshni Kapur
Three Royal Brunei Airlines pilots have made history by being the airline’s first all-female flight crew to touch down in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to drive. The historic landing on 23 February coincided with Brunei’s National Day that rejoices celebrates the country’s independence.
Captain Sharifa Czarena Surainy and Senior First Officers Sariana Nordin and Dk Nadiah Pg Khashiem made their maiden flight together in Boeing 787 Dreamliner from their home country Brunei to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Captain Czarena received flight training in the UK and became the first Royal Brunei pilot to fly out of London Heathrow in its flagship Boeing 787 Dreamliner three years ago. Captain Sharifah Czarena said that the development of female pilots is a ‘great achievement’.
“Being a pilot, people normally see it as being a male dominant occupation,” she was quoted in an online article in The Brunei Times.
“As a woman, a Bruneian woman, it is such a great achievement. It’s really showing the younger generation or the girls especially that whatever they dream of, they can achieve it.”
Royal Brunei Airlines said that they are intending to rope in more women into the airline industry. Currently they are offering an Engineering Apprentice programme open to both men and women.
The airline’s landmark journey highlights the barrage of restrictions women face in Saudi Arabia including the driving ban. Although there is no codified law that prohibits women from driving, it is a rule imposed by conservative Muslim clerics. The driving restriction is carried nationwide and women who go behind the wheel risk being fined and arrested by the religious police.
In the last few years, Saudi women have leveraged on social media to campaign against the driving ban. The Women2Drive campaign has drawn almost 18,000 “likes” on Facebook urging women to post images of them driving.
However the religious police do not hesitate to crack down and detain female drivers. In December 2014, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was detained after she tried to drive from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into Saudi Arabia. Maysa al-Amoudi, a friend who showed up to support her, was also detained. Both women were released after being detained for more than 70 days in custody.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “After years of false promises to end its absurd restrictions on women, Saudi authorities are still arresting them for getting behind the wheel. The Saudi government’s degrading restrictions on women are what bring shame to the country, not the brave activists standing up for their rights.”
The ultra-conservative country has long observed a strict sect of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which insists on segregation of the sexes and restrictions on women. Hence men and women are segregated in many public places spaces. “Unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the arrest of the violators and criminal charges,” political scientist Elham Manea was quoted in an online article on The Week.