(CNSNews.com) – The French women’s rights minister, already under fire for provocative comments relating to Islamic dress for women, is now caught between Air France management and unions in a row over a requirement that air hostesses wear headscarves when the airline renews flights to Iran this month.
Following the easing of sanctions under the nuclear deal, Air France is resuming three weekly flights from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Tehran on April 17 after an eight-year suspension. And management of the airline want female flight attendants to comply with Iranian modesty norms.
The unions are incensed over a management memo saying air hostesses wear long trousers with a long jacket – rather than skirts – on the flights, and that during stopover periods, “outside the bedroom, women must wear a scarf and a wide and long garment to conceal their shapes.”
Moreover, female staff have been told not to smoke in public during stopovers – a restriction not applicable to male staff.
The unions want the airline to allow air hostesses to opt out of working on the Tehran route, without financial loss or risk to their careers.
One of several staff unions, Union des Navigants de l’Aviation (UNAC), wrote to women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol last week, urging her to intervene, saying air hostesses viewed the requirements as unprofessional and “a true threat to their dignity.”
On Saturday, UNAC said the minister had made direct contact, “to better understand the problems related to the specific restrictions on female cabin crew” on the flights to Tehran. It expressed hopes that a “common sense solution” could be found.
The French government owns a little under 20 percent of Air France-KLM, the result of a 2004 merger between the French and Dutch carriers.
Another union, Syndicat National du Personnel Navigant Commercial (SNPNC), said in a letter to airline management that the modesty requirements were an attack on conscience and individual freedom, and an invasion of privacy.
“It is more widely an attack on the freedom of women,” it said.
SNPNC asked management a number of questions relating to the implications of air hostesses declining to work on the Tehran route, and ended with a dig at a company which since 2006 has marked every International Women’s Day with all-female crews on several long-haul routes.
“Are the abovementioned [modesty] provisions compatible with the introduction by AF of 100 percent female flights on Women’s Day?” the union asked. “Or does it mean that the latter measure is only an advertising gimmick?”
According to Agence France Pres, Air France said the headscarf rule was not new but a resumption of policy employed before flights to Iran stopped in 2008.
“Iranian law requires that a veil covering the hair be worn in public places by all women on its territory,” the airline said.
‘The confinement of women’s bodies’
Rossignol, the women’s rights minister who is being called upon to intervene in the row, made waves herself last week when in a radio interview she compared women who choose to wear the Islamic burqa – clothing designed to conceal a woman’s head and body – to American “negroes” who accepted slavery.
The comments provoked an uproar, but Rossignol, while apologizing for her use of the “pejorative word,” said she stood by the point she was trying to make – about fashion companies promoting garments for Muslims which, she said, amount to “the confinement of women’s bodies.”
In France, Islamic headscarves (hijabs) – and other religious paraphernalia – were controversially banned in public schools and government offices in 2004, and a law passed in 2010 outlawed the wearing in public of any full face-covering garb.
In the United States, by contrast, the Justice Department intervened in 2003 on behalf of a Muslim six-grader in Oklahoma who was suspended from school for refusing a directive to remove her hijab.
In his 2009 address “to the Muslim world” in Cairo, President Obama alluded to such cases, saying that “freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion … that’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”
Obama said in the speech Western countries should not prevent Muslim citizens “from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
The comments were generally perceived as being directed at France, whose then-President Nicolas Sarkozy said two days later that limits on headscarves were set in France in certain cases “because we are a secular state.”
Using stronger language weeks later, Sarkozy told lawmakers in Paris that the burqa was not a religious symbol but “a symbol of servitude and humiliation.”
“We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity,” he said. “That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”
Fatwa scholars on the website Islam Online cite a leading cleric as saying covering the entire body, including the face and hands, is a “condition” in one school of Islamic jurisprudence, and “recommended” in other schools.
“If the law governing a given country requires uncovering the face of the woman for genuine reasons, such as identification, the Muslim woman, like all other women, abides by the law,” the scholars wrote.