Royal Brunei Airlines’ All-Woman Cockpit Crew

March 20, 2016

ROYAL BRUNEI AIRLINES might have a hideous new livery, but they’re a proud little airline, and you can’t say they don’t have nerve — or at least a sense of humor? Last month, coinciding with Brunei National Day, the country’s independence holiday, the carrier operated its first-ever flight with an all-female cockpit crew. Captain Sharifah Czarena, assisted by first officers Sariana Nordin and Dk Nadiah Pg Khashiem, piloted flight 81, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the regularly scheduled route from Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

It’d be wrong to describe Brunei as a progressive Muslim nation, but at least they allow their women some important freedoms, and it’s hard not to assume that the choice of destination for this flight — Saudi Arabia being arguably the most woman-unfriendly nation in the world — wasn’t on some level a political statement.

Royal Brunei Female Crew

Which this gets me thinking…

in South Africa during Apartheid, many of you will recall, the nation’s white minority government ruled over a black majority population, and the people of that black majority were denied important rights and generally treated as second-class citizens. It was a system completely deserving of worldwide condemnation. Which it got. The outcry over the policies of Apartheid is unforgettable. For years it went on and on. There were marches and boycotts and celebrity pronouncements galore. You would buy an album, and on the cover it would righteously be stamped: THIS RECORD IS NOT FOR SALE IN SOUTH AFRICA. Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress chief who spent most of his adulthood in the Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town, was hailed as a saint. When, after the fall of Apartheid, Mandela became the president, crowds measuring in the hundreds of thousands greeted him around the globe.

All duly noted. But now, here in 2016, let’s turn for a minute to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Am I mistaken, or are women in Saudi Arabia at least as oppressed and marginalized as any black person in South Africa was. This, in the name of the country’s state religion — an ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam known as Wahabbism, as expressed under the dictates of Shariah.

Never mind the right to drive; it was only in 2013 that Saudi women were granted the right to ride a bicycle! And this right can only be exercised in designated parks, under the supervision of a male relative. Saudi women are not allowed to be seen in public with a man who is not her husband or male relative. Nor can they travel abroad without permission from a husband or male guardian. Saudia, the national airline, hires Moroccan flight attendants because its own female citizens are forbidden to hold such a job.

When a Saudi woman is raped, it is generally seen as a stain on her family’s honor. As a result, most rapes in the Kingdom go unreported and unprosecuted. The Saudi government, meanwhile, holds “sorcery-awareness workshops,” in which citizens are encouraged to turn in “witches and sorcerers,” almost all of whom are alleged to be women. Just this year the nation’s law enforcement apparatus introduced a new unit dedicated to “witchcraft investigations.”

No, this isn’t the 14th century. It’s 2016 and this is our supposed regional ally. I’m still waiting for the protests, the marches, the songs and celebrity outrage; the charity concerts and boycotts. I’m still waiting for Bono or Sting to weigh in, and for the campus protests to start.


Cockpit photo courtesy of Royal Brunei Airlines.

I flew Royal Brunei between Bandar and Singapore a few years ago. The service was decent if unspectacular. For photos from that trip, visit the Brunei archive here.

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15 Responses to “Royal Brunei Airlines’ All-Woman Cockpit Crew”
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  1. xxPaulCPxx says:

    There has been a spate of articles lately questioning the stability of Saudi led Arabia. Here are a couple articles worth a read on the topic:

    Blame It All On Saudi Arabia – this gives a history on how the modern regeim came to be, including the core conservative religious elements:

    Start Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom – this shows how easy it would be to topple this regime in the current time period

    One thing I am interested in – from an aviation perspective – is how the Saudis handle the Haj. Middle eastern countries are one of the biggest buyers of the largest jets, and they pack them full of seats too!

  2. Nancy Brenner says:

    You are correct that most rapes are not reported but you left out an important component of the Saudi government’s sharia law. Which is that if a woman, teen, or child rape victim does report, she, as the victim is declared the entity at fault and due to a Muslim tenant of their “shame” culture, the only way for her family to regain status, proceeds to have a male member of her family to kill her. “Honor killing”. That the current US administration currently participates with the UN human rights council (1st administration to not boycott it in decades) is shameful. China is currently on the UN Human Right’s Council along with many other countries that have horrific records of protecting the human rights of their own citizens. The UN is the most biased, corrupt and worthless organization, in my opinion.

  3. Marc says:

    C’mon. It’s because of the Saudis’ oil. That’s the same reason it’s been kept quiet that the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis and probably Saudi-sponsored.

  4. Patrick Wright says:

    I have something to add to your characterization of Saudi Arabia. Does anyone remember Idi Amin? It would be fair to describe him as Africa’s Hitler. After fleeing Uganda, he settled into a very comfortable, state funded retirement in Saudi Arabia, where he died of old age in 2003 without ever having to face an international war crimes tribunal or any other form of justice for his actions which included the deaths of half a million people.

  5. Tom O says:

    You ask why Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women doesn’t draw anywhere near the condemnation that apartheid-era South Africa’s treatment of its black citizens did. The answer to that question can be condensed into one word: OIL!!

  6. Jeff says:

    Good article! I would love to see this beautiful world we live in with no religion. Animals treat each-other better than humans do in the name of religion

  7. James Wattengel says:

    Great post!

    I just sent it to an AA 787 Captain friend.

    On a recent last trip here GRU from LAX of the other pilots was a woman.

  8. MeanMom says:

    Thanks for this interesting post! The world is an absurd place, sometimes. Imagine these women parking their Dreamliner at the gate… and then not being able to rent a car at the airport! Wow. Actions like these may not change the world, but they help. Were they allowed by the Saudi authorities to take off again?

  9. Mike says:

    ‘Brunei could perhaps be described as one of the more progressive Muslim nations,’

    I don’t think so

    Brunei is an absolute monarchy with no semblance of democracy. There is a legislative council but all of its members are appointed by the sultan. It is illegal to criticise the ruling monarchy.

    Brunei also recently introduced the full range of sharia law including stoning for adultery, lashing for drinking alcohol, amputation for theft and execution for a whole host of crimes – and their view of crime includes being gay. Just last year the government banned Muslims from engaging with any celebration of Christmas – including sending Christmas cards to non-Muslim friends – with punishments of up to 5 years in prison. Foreigners can get festive, but only in their own residences and they have to alert the authorities.

    Iran seems progressive compared to Brunei.

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for weighing in with this. I appreciate the input. After receiving your letter and doing a little more research, I decided to edit the text. That Brunei would introduce corporal punishment, or worse, for things like adultery and alcohol consumption is extremely troubling. My time in Brunei was short, and I never picked up on any sort of hostile or oppressive vibe. Of course, that’s a tourist speaking who was only there for four or five days.

  10. Jay says:

    >however one pronounces that

    Patrick, it’s 2016, don’t act like an ignorant American. Her name is Dk Nadiah Pg Khashiem and her name is just as valuable as yours. She’s a fully qualified First Officer, and I salute her and her colleagues. I’m sure that is your intent too, but please don’t ruin your otherwise great post with a “don’t care enough to try” attitude. Women have a hard enough job in any country, let alone a Muslim one, so please show her the same respect and courtesy you’d expect in return. Thanks.

    • Patrick says:

      That’s not how I meant it, Jay. I wasn’t trying to sound flip or insulting. I felt that if I didn’t in some way reference the oddness (yes, from the Western perspective) of the spelling of her name, people might think it was a mistake or a typo. That was my impression when I first read the name, and I spent a few minutes surfing around to make sure it was correct. There was probably a classier way of doing this, however, and your point is taken. I have removed that remark from the text. Thanks for taking the time to write.

      • Jay says:

        Thanks for your generous reply Patrick.

        As I’ve aged I’ve turned into a bit of a feminist I think – unlike some of my friends anyway! 🙂

        And while I’m at it, thanks for the great web site – I really enjoy the information you share

    • Stuart Frankel says:

      Dk and Pg aren’t names; they’re titles or, rather, abbreviations for titles. Dk is short for Dayangku, and Pg is short for Pengiran (I think; something like that, anyway).

      I sometimes get mail addressed to the equally unpronounceable “Dr Stuart Frankel,” although only from my alma mater asking for money, or from my mother.

      • Jokiwi says:

        Thanks!! I arrived at this article because I was trying to find out how to pronounce her name correctly. Now I can look up those titles and explain to my students what it all means.