Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Freedom in the Skies?

It is one thing to report on an interesting phenomenon, but it is another thing to sensationalize and report on an event that misrepresents the society it is trying to portray.

As part of a series called 'Generation Faithful', the New York Times has been reporting on the youth of the Middle East, particularly focusing on their relationship with their faith (Islam, mostly).

I have to be honest. Some of the stories were interesting and worth reading, like 'Young and Arab in the Land of Mosques and Bars' which describes the schizophrenic situation of Dubai's culture.
But I was disappointed with a more recent story ('In Booming Gulf, Some Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies'). This one is the epitome of American sensationalism when it comes to reporting on the Middle East. The feature's main premise states that there is a segment of women who escape their conservative culture by becoming flight attendants, and hence find their 'freedom in the skies' (particularly on board UAE-based airlines: Emirates and Etihad).

If the NYT would like to report on advancements in the cause of women in the Gulf, why not shed light on how Emirati women are outnumbering their male counterparts in graduation halls and the workplace. Arab women in the UAE serve as doctors, engineers and reporters (ahem ahem)- as professionals who don't rely predominantly on the looks, but rather on their intellectual capacity to contribute to the economic prosperity and overall development of the country. Why not report on the first female Emirati judge, the two newly elected female Emirati foreign ambassadors, or the two Ministers serving in the UAE Cabinet instead?

Furthermore, the story fails to give the reader a clearer sense of just how many Arab women work for the airlines mentioned. I don't have statistics but I am pretty sure that most of the stewardesses at Etihad and Emirates are actually European or South East Asian. Furthermore, the reporter undermines just how sexualized these stewardesses are (not my idea of female emancipation, to be honest). If there is one part of the story that I will agree with, it is this:

"It is impossible for an unveiled women in her 20s to go to a mall or grocery store in Abu Dhabi without being asked regularly by grinning strangers, if she is a stewardess."
If that above statement says anything, it is that these women have not escaped the glares of men who regard these women as glamorized prostitutes. Female liberation is something I hope for in this part of the world. Objectifying women and creating a niche job for them complying with sexist roles (housewife, airline stewardess etc...), however, is not a step forward in our journey towards independence and 'freedom'.

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