BMI told stewardess to wear Muslim robe
From The Sunday Times
A BRITISH air stewardess was sacked for refusing to fly to Saudi Arabia after she was ordered to wear a traditional Islamic robe and walk behind male colleagues.
Lisa Ashton, a £15,000-a-year stewardess with BMI, was told that in public areas in Saudi Arabia she was required to wear a black robe, known as an abaya. This covers everything but the face, feet and hands. She was told to follow her male colleagues, irrespective of rank.
Ashton refused to fly there, claiming the instructions were discriminatory. She was sacked last April.
“It’s not the law that you have to walk behind men in Saudi Arabia, or that you have to wear an abaya, and I’m not going to be treated as a second-class citizen. It’s outrageous. I’m a proud Englishwoman and I don’t want these restrictions placed on myself.”
Saudi experts and companies that recruit women to work in the country say it is a “myth” that western women are required to walk behind men. There is no requirement for them to wear the abaya in public, though many do.
Earlier this year an employment tribunal in Manchester ruled that BMI was justified in imposing “rules of a different culture” on staff and cleared it of sexual discrimination. Ashton has consulted Liberty, the human rights organisation, and may seek a judicial review of the decision.
Ashton joined BMI in March 1996, flying to the Caribbean, the United States and India. Based in Manchester, she was told in the summer of 2005 that BMI was starting a service to Saudi Arabia and she might be required to work on it.
The Foreign Office was then advising visitors of a “threat of terrorism” in the country. Ashton did not want to travel there because of the security risks, and was offended by the rules for staff travelling to the region.
A BMI document circulated to staff who might travel to Saudi Arabia stated: “It is expected that female crew members will walk behind their male counterparts in public areas such as airports no matter what rank.”
Staff were also given abayas and were required to put them on when leaving the aircraft. Ashton, a practising Christian, was advised by union officials that it was considered a part of the uniform and she could face disciplinary action if she did not wear it. Why doesn't it surprise me that her Union failed to stand up for her?
Ashton said she did not want to fly to Saudi Arabia, but wished to continue flying long-haul routes. The firm said she could transfer to short-haul flights but that would have meant a pay cut of about 20%. She declined to switch to short-haul flights.
On June 13, 2007, she was told she was rostered for a flight from London to Saudi Arabia and refused to go. She was dismissed for refusing to fly and for making it clear she would not travel to Saudi Arabia.
Her letter of dismissal said it was “proportionate” to ask female employees to walk behind men out of respect for Saudi culture. BMI has also defended its decision to require female staff to wear abayas. Many air stewards are gay men - were they given any directions as to how to behave under the Saudi regime? The Foreign Office advises women to dress “conservatively” but does not specifically advise wearing an abaya in public places. It also does not refer to any rule or convention that western women should walk behind men.
In a legal case in 2002 Colonel Martha McSally launched a legal action over American military orders that female servicewomen should wear an abaya in public places in Saudi Arabia when American women diplomats and the wives of servicemen were not expected to wear the garment. The Senate subsequently passed legislation that prohibited defence officials from requiring female personnel to wear abayas.
In the employment tribunal decision over Ashton’s case it was ruled there was no evidence that women would regard BMI’s requirements on wearing the abaya, or walking behind men, as “placing them under any disadvantage”. Ashton’s case was dismissed.
The firm said last week the tribunal ruling was “self-explanatory” and would not comment.
Posted on 04/26/2009 4:50 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax