RB's first ever female trio at the flight deck; (from L-R) Captain Sharifah Czarena, Senior First Officer Dk Nadiah and Senior First Officer Sariana in the flight deck prior to operating flight BI081 from Brunei to Jeddah wishes Brunei Darussalam a "Happy 32nd National Day" ❤️ We are the Nation's "Generation with a Vision"; we are the tomorrow. #RBbetterfly #HK32 #RBPOV
The photograph above may seem relatively innocuous, but to many observers, it shows a rebellion.
The image, which was shared by Royal Brunei's Instagram account last month, shows the airline's first all-female flight crew sitting in the cabin of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Royal Brunei announced the introduction of its first all-female flight crew late last month, making it the latest in a string of airlines to mark the milestone.
However, it wasn't just the pilots' sex that brought attention: It was where they were flying to.
At the time the photograph was taken, Capt. Sharifah Czarena and her two female first officers were about to fly from Brunei to Jiddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia — a country where women are not allowed to drive.
Although the image was initially shared three weeks ago, it gained traction after being shared this week on Reddit under the headline "An all-female crew lands an airliner into a country they're not allowed to drive in." The image soon spread far and wide on social media:
All-woman crew just flew us EWR-LHR. This crew flew Royal Brunei to Saudi: they can fly a plane but not drive a car pic.twitter.com/YSmxrvQZBR
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) March 13, 2016
Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women driving have gained international notoriety. Religious rulings say that women can't get driving licenses, meaning that, legally, they cannot drive. In practice, this isn't always adhered to — Bedouin women and women in the southern provinces often drive, regardless of the fact that they cannot get licenses — but the ban on female drivers is still a potent symbol of the various restrictions on women in the Sunni kingdom.
Saudi Arabia's official attitudes to female pilots aren't as strict as you might expect, though. In 2014, Hanadi al-Hindi became the first Saudi woman to be licensed to fly in the kingdom, and she has since been followed by others. Her license came a year after billionaire Saudi Prince Talal had cited her flying ability as evidence that Saudi women should be allowed to drive.
Despite this, Saudi women have been detained for driving cars as recently as 2014.
In 2012, Czarena told the Brunei Times how it felt to be the first female captain not just in her country, but in all of southeast Asia. "Being a pilot, people normally see it as being a male dominant occupation. As a woman, a Bruneian woman, it is such a great achievement," she said. "It's really showing the younger generation or the girls especially that whatever they dream of, they can achieve it."
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