The XX Factor

Why Air France’s Headscarf Mandate for Flight Attendants in Tehran Isn’t So Absurd

An Iranian woman on February 24, 2016 in Tehran, Iran.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Last week, Air France notified its female flight attendants that they would have to wear company headscarves in Iran upon disembarking the plane at the end of the Paris-Tehran route. After employees complained to their union, Air France officials said on Monday that female flight attendants will be allowed to opt out of the route and request a reassignment if they object to covering their hair in the Islamic nation.

In light of the airline’s plan to resume service to Tehran on April 17 after an eight-year suspension on political grounds, officials sent a memo to female staff about the route’s dress code, which includes pants and loose-fitting clothing in addition to the headscarf they must don when they step off the plane in Tehran. Flight attendants are usually able to choose between a skirt and pants when it comes to uniform dress, but the Tehran flight dress code predates the current conflict; it was codified Air France policy when the route was suspended in 2008. Before Air France yielded to its employees’ demands by allowing them to opt out of working the Tehran flights, a union representative for the flight attendants said that they were fine with wearing a headscarf during their off-work time in Iran, but balked at the idea of being forced to wear them as part of their uniform.

This collision of religion, dress, and employment is an interesting case study of what happens when a country with some of the world’s most hostile laws against Islamic traditions tries to do business in a country with some of the world’s most stringent Islamic laws. In France, it is illegal for women to wear religious headscarves at school and work, and face coverings like burqas and niqabs are banned in all public spaces. Meanwhile, since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian law has required that all women cover their legs to their ankles and cover their hair with a scarf. In most places, a loose head covering with the hairline and tendrils exposed is fine, and a law that would have beefed up enforcement of women’s dress codes was deemed unconstitutional last year. Still, even for foreign visitors, walking around in Iran without a head covering could be grounds for arrest, a steep fine, or a stern talking-to from Iranian police.

According to AFP, Air France said its employees are “obliged like other foreign visitors to respect the laws of the countries to which they travelled.” In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the same headscarf rule applies for all flight attendants, who must also wear legally mandated abayas—long, loose robes that stretch from neck to ankle. (The Economist reports that the Saudi law requiring headscarves is not enforced for foreign women. Air France still requires them for its employees.)

No company based in a secular democracy should force its employees to work in a place that legally requires them to wear clothing that runs counter to their religious, cultural, or social practices. Air France was right to offer its female flight attendants the right to refuse a Tehran assignment. But employers often set guidelines for what their employees cannot do while representing the company in uniform. “Disobeying the law” is usually one of them. Six young Iranians who made a parody of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video were recently sentenced to 91 lashes and a year in prison for failing to wear headscarves and for dancing with members of the opposite sex, and Iran is not known for its kind treatment of foreign prisoners, nor for any measure of due process or leniency. Giving employees headscarves to wear while in uniform will keep the company from flouting Iranian law without imposing any extra financial obligation on its workers.

Now that the dispute between Air France and its female flight attendants has been settled, French lawmakers should take note of its implications. In the days after Air France announced its Tehran dress code, one flight attendant’s union contacted France’s minister for women’s rights and families, Laurence Rossignol, seeking support for their protest of the headscarf policy. Rossignol recently likened Muslim women who wear headscarves or veils to “American negroes who were in favor of slavery.” If she and other women’s rights advocates are so repelled by the idea of non-Muslim French women being forced to don a headscarf in an Islamic nation, they’d be wise to imagine how Muslim women feel when France forces them to take theirs off.