Fired for flying while feminist?

A British airline's unequal treatment of male and female employees in some countries is sexist and wrong -- but it's also not why Lisa Ashton got sacked.

Published April 27, 2009 2:08PM (EDT)

At first, this story about a female British flight attendant fired for refusing to wear an abaya (a black robe that covers most of the body) or walk behind male colleagues when in Saudi Arabia seemed like just the sort of thing to make my Feminist Outrage Meter go berserk. Although experts on Saudi culture say "it is a 'myth' that Western women are required to walk behind men," and the British Foreign Office makes no mention of such a custom, Lisa Ashton's employer, BMI, circulated a document that read, "It is expected that female crew members will walk behind their male counterparts in public areas such as airports no matter what rank."

Although many Western women do choose to wear an abaya while traveling in Saudi Arabia, and the Foreign Office recommends "conservative dress," the airline's requirement that female flight attendants consider the abaya "part of the uniform" upon arrival in Saudi Arabia seems excessive. (In 2002, legal action over a similar issue with the U.S. military resulted in the U.S. Senate passing "legislation that prohibited defense officials from requiring female personnel to wear abayas.")

Yet the employment tribunal looking into Ashton's complaint "ruled that BMI was justified in imposing 'rules of a different culture' on staff and cleared it of sexual discrimination." Are you kidding me? On what planet is it not discrimination to demand that female employees walk behind male employees when there is no legal requirement or even, apparently, local custom dictating they should do so?

But wait, that's not the whole story. When BMI began service to Saudi Arabia in 2005, "Ashton did not want to travel there because of the security risks, and was offended by the rules for staff travelling to the region." Focus on that first part for a minute. Now get this:

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.

She was dismissed for refusing to fly. Which, when you're a flight attendant, seems like a pretty reasonable cause for a sacking. The first time Ashton said she didn't want to go to Saudi Arabia, BMI offered an alternative that would involve keeping her job, and she turned it down -- understandably, given the associated pay cut, but at least the airline did attempt to accommodate her desire to avoid the country. When she was fired, it wasn't just for refusing to wear an abaya or walk behind men, but for refusing to perform her regular duties at all because of the destination. You don't really get to not do your job and then blame sexism for your firing, even when your employer is being sexist.

And I fully believe BMI is being sexist, don't get me wrong. If allowing female employees to wear Western clothing and walk wherever they like actually involved breaking local laws or created serious safety concerns for those women, I might be a bit more understanding about the policy. As it is, though, "cultural sensitivity" should not require British women to feign subservience to lower-ranked male colleagues, and the risk of alienating Saudi customers should not take precedence over female employees' right to equal treatment under their home country's laws and values. The policy sucks; it's discriminatory, and BMI is wrong to enforce it . But it's also not, apparently, why Lisa Ashton was fired. A xenophobic refusal to do one's job is also sucky and wrong, so I just can't feature Ashton as a poster girl for feminism here.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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