Following the sanctions imposed over Iran‘s nuclear programme being lifted in January, many companies are slowly starting to collaborate once more with Tehran, to the excitement of politicians and business investors.
Suspended in 2008, Air France flights to Tehran will recommence from 17 April, flying three times a week. However, the new promising business opportunity for Air France results in a conflict within the company. For the reason, as they say in France, “Cherchez la femme”.
The cause for this new protest of Air France staff began with a note to the female cabin crew members that said they would be required to wear long sleeve jackets, trousers (instead of a skirt) and headscarves as uniform on their arrival to Tehran. Air France stewardess expressed their outrage at the “new rules” and refused to cover up .
Flore Arrighi, head of the UNAC flight crews‘ union, said: “It is not our role to pass judgment on the wearing of headscarves or veils in Iran. What we are denouncing is that it is being made compulsory for us at work.”
In France, the full-face veil is forbidden in public spaces and headscarves and other religious signs are banned by law in state schools and offices, which is motivated by the French law on the separation of state and church from 1905.Therefore, making the headscarf part of a uniform would be considered against the law in France.
Moreover, expecting female cabin crew to cover themselves is considered an attack on their dignity and individual freedoms. In response to the “girls’ riot” within Air France, the company’s spokesperson refused to understand the demands of the female cabin crew and declared that: “Tolerance and respect for the customs of the countries we serve are part of the values of our company.”
They later said they would offer an opt-out clause for women on the Paris-Tehran route.“If, for personal reasons, they don’t want to wear the headscarf when they leave the plane, they would be reassigned to another destination,” said Gilles Gateau, Air France’s human resources director, on 4 April.
This incident has taken place right in the middle of a heated public debate in France, with liberals on one side, who, in the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, call for society to exercise freedom of speech and refuse to be afraid to criticise Islam and some of its medieval norms. On the other side the so-called regressive left, fractioning with campaigners such as Tariq Ramadan, demanding respect for cultures and attempting to silence any debate about Islam.
However, the Air France affair goes beyond a simple discussion as here the rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran were imposed upon French female workers while they continue to work for a French employer under French law.
By enforcing headscarves, Air France did not encourage tolerance or support towards the customs of Iran, as it claimed, but demanded support to the theocratic regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The headscarf is not cultural, it is political; it was imposed by the regime after the Iranian Revolution 1979. An imposed head coverage for women is oppression and an attack on their freedom.
In this move, Air France shamefully betrays Western values but more importantly, insults the Iranian women and men who have been campaigning for decades against this oppressive law and struggle with the constant harassment of religious police. The Facebook page of Iranian female campaigners, called My stealthy freedom, that is followed by nearly a million of people and shares photos of women in Iran taking off their headscarves, condemns the Air France initiative and supports the protest of the French stewardesses, calling Western women to support them.
As long as the headscarf remains compulsory for women in many countries and communities, it is a moral crime to claim a headscarf is a sign of woman’s freedom and choice.
“This situation once more highlights the necessity for female tourists along with female politicians travelling to Iran to voice their opposition to this unfair law obliging women to comply with a certain dress code. As you might have all realised, numerous Iranian women have taken huge risks to voice their opposition to this compulsory dress code. Why shouldn’t the rest of women in the world voice a similar opposition to these laws as loudly as they can?” wrote the Iranian campaigners on their page.
The debates about the Muslim veil are well known. On one hand feminists claim it is a sign of oppression for women, and on the other “Muslim feminists”, as they call themselves, argue it is a choice of every woman and a protection of their dignity.
The compulsory nature of the headscarf in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the similar attitude of communities and now even companies like Air France, contradicts all the claims of Muslim feminists about headscarf not being a symbol of women‘s oppression.
To continue to hide the oppressive and sexist nature of the Muslim veil is counterproductive, and even endangers many Muslim women themselves, who experience violent attacks. While some claim their headscarf is a choice, many across the globe are obliged to hide themselves from society under compulsory religious clothing that is aimed at making women invisible.
Just like Michelle Obama, who refused to wear a headscarf during an official visit to Saudi Arabia last year, and the Air France stewardesses, there are many women out there who manifest their freedom against compulsory attire. The struggle needs more voices, and the voices it arguably needs most are the voices of Muslim women who should loudly condemn the oppressive nature of the headscarf that is today used as a political tool against women. As long as the headscarf remains compulsory for women in many countries and communities, it is a moral crime to claim a headscarf is a sign of woman‘s freedom and choice.
As individuals, whether we are religious or not, we should not remain silent and let governments and institutions – or even companies – impose religious laws that divide society. We should unite and resist like the Air France cabin crew have done, and like many women do in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many more places around the world. The beauty of freedom is to allow a woman to feel the wind pass through her hair if she wants to. And sadly, simple freedoms like this still need our vocal defence today.