A special shout out this week to Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ outspoken chief executive, for unashamedly propagating gender stereotypes. At a press conference in Sydney on Tuesday, Al Baker responded to a question about gender equality in the airline industry by insisting that only a man could do his job. "Of course, it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position," were his exact words. God forbid that the fairer sex be required to challenge themselves… they might break a nail, or something.
Made at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association, only a few minutes after Al Baker was named chairman of the organisation, the comment drew gasps of surprise from those present and almost universal criticism thereafter. He has since issued a “heartfelt apology” and written the comment off as a joke. Hilarious, Mr Al Baker.
It is bad enough that his response exposed his own antiquated, chauvinistic views, and highlighted the fact that women still struggle to break through the glass ceiling in many (if not most) industries. It was completely tone deaf given the current climate, since conversations surrounding women’s rights, sexual harassment and equal pay are just starting to gain traction in many parts of the world - not least Saudi Arabia, where this week the first driving licenses were issued to women, weeks before the ban on female drivers is to be lifted on June 24.
Al Baker’s stance was all the more pertinent given that this was also the week that Harvey Weinstein was formally charged with rape and sexual assault, and that the Miss America pageant, that bastion of female objectification, announced that it would be dropping its swimsuit and evening gown segments. "We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance," said Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of Miss America's board of trustees. “That's huge."
For me, the most damaging thing about Al Baker’s viewpoint is that it reinforces stereotypes about the role that women play in Middle Eastern societies. His ill-conceived remark will be taken by some as representative of how things are done here, feeding into negative perceptions that women are treated as second-class citizens, with few rights and minimal career prospects.
As a woman who has spent the last 16 years writing about, travelling around and interviewing people in the Middle East, I am particularly offended by Al Baker’s comments, because his chauvinism (and, by extension, the implied chauvinism of the wider region) does not ring true with my experiences in this part of the world. My first ever job in journalism was for a magazine that focused on travel and tourism development in the Mena region, so from the age of 22, I would travel to Yemen, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and everywhere in between, interviewing minsters, heads of tourism boards and national airlines, hoteliers and other high-level executives. Not once did I feel out of place or that I was not being taken seriously because I was a woman (and a very young one at that). I never felt unsafe or undermined or unacknowledged (not even that time when I sat in the Yemeni minister of tourism’s majlis as enormous branches of qat were being passed around). And in the ten years that I have worked in the UAE, I have never felt that my career has suffered on account of my gender or that I have been paid less because of it. On the contrary - I have been afforded opportunities in this country that I would not have anywhere else in the world, regardless of whether I was a man or a woman.
Al Baker’s comments are offensive in themselves – but all the more so because they may be taken as reflective of an entire region.
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