Thursday, May 14, 2009

Should stewardesses flying to Saudi Arabia be required to wear head-to-toe coverings and walk behind men?

One airline thinks so. British Midland Airways is going to absurd and insulting lengths to patronize backward habits of the Middle East by forcing its female flight attendants to dress and behave in a stereotype of subservient Saudi women. When flight attendant Lisa Ashton stood up to the policy, she was fired.

BMI employees were informed of the policy in August 2005. In addition to wearing the traditional abaya, the policy stated that, “it is expected that female crew members walk behind their male counterparts in public areas such as the airport, no matter what rank.”

To Miss Ashton this was outrageous. “I am a proud Englishwoman and I don’t want to be demeaned in this way,” she told us in an exclusive interview. “I’m a Christian, and I’m proud to be British.” Miss Ashton hastened to add that this was not a clash of civilizations but a labor dispute over a sexually discriminatory policy. “This is not a political statement or promotion of one belief over another,” she said. “We’re living in the 21st century here. Any woman told to walk behind a man will be outraged, don’t you think?”

Miss Ashton’s union representative told her the abaya was considered “an item of uniform” and that refusal to wear it should be treated as “a potential disciplinary matter.” Miss Ashton went to great lengths to avoid coming into conflict with the policy. She asked not to be scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia, but that would remove her from all long-haul routes, which effectively would cut her salary by a third. When her time finally came to fly to Saudi Arabia, she refused, and was suspended.

Ten months of what Miss Ashton refers to as “administrative bullying” ensued before she was dismissed in April 2008. “I started standing up for myself,” she said, “and I don’t think they liked it.” She appealed her case but a labor tribunal accepted BMI’s argument that the airline introduced the requirements “entirely from the need to conform to local customs, practices and law in Saudi Arabia.”

Miss Ashton contends this is “culturally illiterate.” She inquired at the Saudi Embassy and was told there is no law or regulation in Saudi Arabia requiring visiting Westerners to dress and behave this way. A 1979 official Saudi dress code requires visiting women to dress conservatively and suggests but does not require the abaya. Female U.S. service personnel in the country were forced to wear abayas under a 1991 Defense Department policy, but this was challenged in a 2001 lawsuit by Air Force Col. Martha McSally. Congress passed legislation prohibiting the requirement in 2002.

BMI recently came under fire when passengers on a flight to Tel Aviv noticed that the in-flight display did not show their destination, and the Israeli city of Haifa was listed under its Arabic name Khefa. Passengers were also not given the distance to their destination but instead were shown the distance to Mecca.

BMI spokesman Phil Shepherd told us these aircraft were formerly operated by BMED, a former British Airways subsidiary which specialized in flights to the Middle East. A technical error prevented the maps from being deactivated and corrected versions are being installed.

But BMI still requires female flight attendants to mimic the demeaning customs of the most backward elements of Saudi society. BMI should help usher Saudi Arabia into the modern age by setting an example of equality and tolerance rather than pandering to discriminatory practices.

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