Hey, New York Times! “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

etihad11This is an old, old problem. But it words matter, especially in the Middle East.

So, please scan the following lines from the New York Times “Generation Faithful” news feature that ran with the headline, “Some Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies.”

Marwa Abdel Aziz Fathi giggled self-consciously as she looked down at the new wing-shaped brooch on the left breast pocket of her crisp gray uniform, then around the room at the dozens of other flight attendants all chatting and eating canapes around her.

It was graduation day at Etihad Training Academy, where the national airline of the United Arab Emirates holds a seven-week training course for new flight attendants. Downstairs are the cavernous classrooms where Ms. Fathi and other trainees rehearsed meal service plans in life-size mockups of planes and trained in the swimming pool, where they learned how to evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency landing over water.

Despite her obvious pride, Ms. Fathi, a 22-year-old from Egypt, was amazed to find herself here. …

A decade ago, unmarried Arab women like Ms. Fathi, working outside their home countries, were rare. But just as young men from poor Arab nations flocked to the oil-rich Persian Gulf states for jobs, more young women are doing so, sociologists say, though no official statistics are kept on how many.

Flight attendants have become the public face of the new mobility for some young Arab women, just as they were the face of new freedoms for women in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. They have become a subject of social anxiety and fascination in much the same way.

In case you missed the point, this news feature is about Arab women.

Or is it? Perhaps it would help to ask the following obvious question: Has there ever been a problem, in the Middle East, with young Arab women who are Christians working on any of the national airlines? How about Turks? Or the Lebanese?

You see, the word “Arab” is an ethnic reference. There are many Arab Christians, in Eastern Orthodox churches, Eastern Rite Catholic churches or even branches of Protestantism. And there are millions and millions of Muslims who are not Arabs.

The assumption, I think, is that this “Generation Faithful” story is about religion — that is about an interesting trend among Muslim women in this region. And, in fact, later in the story we read:

In the midst of an Islamic revival across the Arab world that is largely being led by young people, gulf states like Abu Dhabi — which offer freedoms and opportunities nearly unimaginable elsewhere in the Middle East — have become an unlikely place of refuge for some young Arab women. And many say that the experience of living independently and working hard for high salaries has forever changed their ambitions and their beliefs about themselves, though it can also lead to a painful sense of alienation from their home countries and their families.

At almost any hour of the day or night, there are a dozen or more young women with identical rolling suitcases waiting in the lobby of their dormitory to be picked up for work on Etihad flights. Though several are still drowsily applying makeup — and the more steady-handed have perfected a back-of-the-bus toilette that takes exactly the length of their usual ride to Abu Dhabi International Airport — they are uniformly well ironed and blow-dried. Those with longer hair wear black hair-ties wrapped around meticulously hair-netted ponytails. They wear jaunty little caps with attached gauzy scarves that hint at hijab, the head coverings worn by many Muslim women.

And there are plenty of passages in the story that stress tensions between the “Come fly with me” atmosphere and the traditions of, well, Islam.

Clutching her friend by the elbow, the Egyptian woman indicated one of the bouncers. “Isn’t he just so yummy?” she shrieked. The bouncer, who had plainly heard, ignored her, and the women filed past. Despite appearances, explained the Egyptian flight attendant — who asked not to be named because she was not authorized by Etihad to speak to the news media — sex and dating are very fraught matters for most of the young Arab women who come to work in the Emirates.

Some young women cope with their new lives away from home by becoming almost nunlike, keeping to themselves and remaining very observant Muslims, she said, while others quickly find themselves in the arms of unsuitable men. “With the Arabic girls who come to work here, you get two types,” the Egyptian woman said. “They’re either very closed up and scared and they don’t do anything, or else they’re not really thinking about flying — they’re just here to get their freedom. They’re really naughty and crazy.”

Now, the anonymous Egyptian woman uses the term “Arabic” to describe these young women — inside a direct quotation. That needs to stand. But that makes it even more important to note that “Arab” does not mean “Muslim.”

flt-attWho cares about this?

Well, millions of non-Arab Muslims care about this issue quite a bit. Obviously, Arab Christians do, as well.

But the story marches on and on in this fashion. Clearly, no one at the Times copy desk was sensitive to this issue. Toward the end, there is even a reference to the airline trying to keep “Arab family values in mind” when working with these young women. What might this phrase mean?

Far more than other jobs they might find in the gulf, flying makes it difficult for Muslim women to fulfill religious duties like praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan, the Egyptian attendant noted. She said she hoped to wear the hijab one day, “just not yet.” A sense of disconnection from their religion can add to feelings of alienation from conservative Muslim communities back home. Young women whose work in the gulf supports an extended family often find, to their surprise and chagrin, that work has made them unsuitable for life within that family.

This is an interesting story, to say the least, since assimilation is one of the greatest challenges for traditional religious believers of all stripes in the modern world. But reporters need to be careful. On the religion beat, the words really matter. Ask Arabs who are members of minority groups in the Middle East.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    It’s worth noting that this story is part of a series, Generation Faithful: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/world/series/generation_faithful/index.html That series does assume the point-of-view of the majority who are Muslim and you’re right that minorities should have been mentioned. I wonder how many of other religions follow the cultural mores of the countries even if they don’t consider them religiously dictated. It would have been nice to have that issue explored.

    Still, even with the evident flaw, I agree the the story and the series are very interesting and useful. Providing a window into issues of ordinary people from other cultures, especially from the Arab Muslim world is essential given the ongoing battle with the fanatics. And it illustrates that cultural and religious dictates that seems extreme to us are embraced by many who live in that culture.

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  • kristy

    This is really an annoying problem that many westerners don’t seem to ‘get’. Actually, I lived in Egypt for 3 years back in 19983-86, and the young ladies who were going to work for the airlines back then were – surprise- Christians! (both Coptic Orthodox and Evangelical) They were actively recruited as Arab stewardesses who could fulfill obligations of their job without breaking any of the Islamic code. Many of them spoke at least three languages, partially because of their Western, Christian contacts. And just to be clear, Copts are often lumped in with Arabs and Muslims, even though many of them are neither Muslims nor Arabs. It is a fascinating social issue that would be good for us Americans to remember, rather than painting ‘all people who live in the Middle East who aren’t Jews’ as one group.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And, of course, Sikhs are frequently lumped in with ArabMuslimterrorists for wearing turbans in public.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And I shudder to think how many writers I have seen depict Iranian characters as speaking “Arabic”.