Man has learned how to fly but is yet to unlearn his discriminating ways. From 1903, when Wright brothers first gave mankind its wings to 21st century, the ground has seen a feminist revolution—demand for equal rights, equal pay and end of discrimination—but it seems that the sky is still untouched by this progression. On 3rd July, Hindustan Times published an advertisement for recruitment of cabin crew for Air India. The airlines laid down pretty stringent and peculiar eligibility criteria for the position of female flight attendants (previously known as air ‘hostesses’). The sexist advertisement mentions the following,
“Maximum age limit as on 01.07.2019 shall be 27 years
Marital Status: Unmarried
Height / BMI: Minimum required for female:157.5 cms (5’2”) /BMI – 18 – 22
Cosmetic Appearance: Should be well groomed with Clear complexion without any noticeable blemish, no odd scars /birthmarks. Even and regular teeth.“
It seems that while women have been fighting for equality in workforce and breaking the glass ceiling, the aviation industry has had its head in the clouds, leaving the fight for equality 30,000ft below as it flies unperturbed in sexist haze.
Your (Sexist) Palace in the Sky!
With a Maharaja (King) as their logo and tagline as “Your Palace in the Sky”, Air India does its best to create a palace for its passengers, following the same patriarchal beliefs of the era of the rulers.
Once the passenger (who is presumed to be male because who else can afford air travel) enters the flight, he is greeted with a smartly dressed female flight attendant, ready to be at his male gaze. Oops! I mean, service.
Air India requires its female flight attendants to be dressed sharply in their uniforms with particular make in place and pleasing smile on their face. For a job which requires the female flight attendants to undergo rigorous training and preparation, for scenarios like terrorist attacks and emergency landings in oceans, emphasis on looks rather than capability seems detrimental.
Air India has shown time and again how it’s not pleasing demeanor and ability to perform that will land a woman job as flight attendant; it is looks. In 2004, Air India rejected applicants for the position of female flight attendants as they had pimples or scars on their face. They were not given a chance to sit for interview to show their capability. One glance decided their fate.
In 2009, Air India dismissed 10 female flight attendants as they were “too fat to fly”. Weight doesn’t affect the ability of a female flight attendant to be polite to the passengers and to be alert in critical situations. Weight is not an infectious disease and the female flight attendants are not models who should be expected to catwalk on the cramped aisle.
The Appeasement of Male Gaze
The criterion of recruitment is based on one basic need—the female flight attendants must be attractive. What is considered attractive is based on western notions of attractiveness—thin, fair, and tall with a pleasing disposition.
Why are looks the cardinal requirement in the aviation industry? The answer lies in the passenger composition. Air travel is expensive and it was assumed that only men can afford to travel by flight. The aviation industry has a history of being sexist, to appease the gaze of male passengers and provide a ‘pleasurable’ travel experience.
Unfortunately the assumed notion of the male flyer and the policy of “sex sells”, have not evolved with the rest of the world. Use of female flight attendants to attract passengers reached its peak when Vietnamese airline, Vietjet, decided to dress its flight attendants in bikinis and have them dance in the aisles mid-flight. (Good news: the airline was fined for its blatant display of male chauvinism)
While other airlines might not be so obvious in using female flight attendants to lure passengers, a sexist eligibility criterion is not limited to Air India. Spicejet also demands for female flight attendants to be “ be between 18 and 27 years old, at least 155cm tall, and of a weight ‘in proportion to height’. Candidates must also be unmarried, ‘with an unblemished complexion and good body language.’ ”
One can understand the emphasis laid on appearance, but a demand for only unmarried women also must be examined. It seems that the Airlines want the female flight attendants to look not only pretty but also ‘available’ to male passengers by ensuring that they don’t display any obvious signs of matrimony.
For similar reasons, age limit is set, especially for female flight attendants. Female flight attendants are retired at the age of 35 and are supposed to take few years off in case they become pregnant, whereas the male flight attendants can continue to work up to the age of 58. Moreover, the airlines want to avoid having ‘matronly’ flight attendants as they fear it will result in loss of passengers.
Using female flight attendants to sexually titillate the passengers is result of a deeply sexist mindset which has resulted in the aviation industry having an unequal and unsafe work environment.
Fighting to Fly High
It’s not like the aviation industry hasn’t seen any uproar against its sexist rules and regulations. Air India’s dismissal of female flight attendants for being overweight was met with a lot of backlash. The airline claimed that “Being grossly overweight does have a bearing on reflexes and can impair agility required to perform the emergency functions”, the flight attendants did sue the airlines but without any luck.
The emphasis on having a perfect body mass index(BMI) has also been a long drawn out battle between the battle the airlines and its employees, with cases often going to the court. Some airlines have given justifications for their concern with the weight of its employees to show that it’s not just limited to cosmetic appearance.
They claim that extra weight costs the airlines in economic terms, and to make air travel less costly for everyone, hiring thin flight attendants is the answer. The supposedly economic considerations behind this concern doesn’t justify the sexism, only makes it more apparent.
If airlines only plan to hire thin female flight attendants, then the policy is discriminatory towards the men who aspire to be flight attendants. Men should have equal opportunity to be a part of the cabin crew which policies favoring women hinder.
Matters relating to age of retirement have also raised a lot of flags. Grievances of female flight attendant don’t end at lower age of retirement but also include how they have to submit a four year moratorium in order to get married, while male flight attendants can get married whenever they wish like.
The cases of Air-India vs. Nargesh Mirza and Kamal Chopra vs. Indian Airlines Corporation relate to such difficulties faced by female flight attendants. In response the airlines have made sever controversial statements citing that such measures are put to ensure the safety of female flight attendants as they are ‘handicapped’ while pregnant. They have also claimed that women are undependable and their attitude towards job becomes undesirable once married.
Such primitive excuses given by Airlines show their hypocrisy, as these rules only apply to female flight attendants and not female pilots. It seems that only flight attendants deserve ‘concern for safety’ while carrying a child and that they are only prone to becoming distracted once married; the same doesn’t apply to female pilots.
No matter how much Airlines try to hide behind the garb of economic considerations and safety for women, it is clear that they think of female flight attendants are nothing more than objects for sexual pleasure of passengers. Such objectification must be stopped and reforms be implemented to make aviation industry egalitarian.
Featured Image Source: The Daily Beast