Fly Girls: the NYT’s essentialist profile of Emirati flight attendants

Fly Girls: the NYT’s essentialist profile of Emirati flight attendants December 23, 2008

MMW would like to thank Thabet for the tip!

Katherine Zopf’s Sunday article in The New York Times about flight attendants in the Emirates set off quite a storm in the blogosphere. And rightly so: it’s often eye-rollingly essentializing when discussing Arab women and society.

But why waste my breath when others said it better?

The Angry Arab News Service highlights two very important issues the article leaves out:

First, of all consider the silly title, implying that Arab women are doomed unless they fly on UAE’s airlines. Secondly, it ignored the most important part of the story: that flight attendants in the Gulf region face horrendous cases of sexual harassment…

GetReligion lectures the NYT on their conflation of the terms “Arab” and “Muslim”:

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.

SwishTravel makes another great point about Arab women’s achievements:

I’m a little confused as to why an article on the progress Arab women are making has to focus on flight attendents! Not intending any offence to flight attendents, but the achievements of Arab women in recent years have been much broader than this.

One of my favorite critiques is from Anonymous News. She states that:

The article seems to fall into a predictable mold: on the one side, the intelligent young women who become flight attendants, and on the other, traditional Arab culture.

The article says:

“Many of the young Arab women working in the Persian Gulf take delight in their status as pioneers, role models for their friends and younger female relatives. Young women brought up in a culture that highly values community, they have learned to see themselves as individuals.”

They have learned to see themselves as individuals? This generalization seems out of place and also moralistic.

“For many families, allowing a daughter to work, much less to travel overseas unaccompanied, may call her virtue into question and threaten her marriage prospects. Yet this culture is changing, said Musa Shteiwi, a sociologist at Jordan University in Amman.”

There are two recognizable camps in this debate. The first is the “West,” which in this case means America. The other is “Arab culture,” which in the context of this article seems to mean, “everything that American culture is not.”

It’s a consensus: boos all around!

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