Air France headscarf kerfuffle: Should Iranian or French norms apply?

Unions convinced the airline to reverse its decision that required female staff flying to Tehran to comply with Iranian dress codes, stirring tension around mandated religious garb.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
Air France planes are parked on the tarmac of the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, in Roissy, near Paris, 2014. Unions worried female cabin crew could be disciplined if they refuse to work on the company's new route to Iran convinced France's national air company management to allow staff to switch flight routes if they did not want to comply with the dress code.

Air France has granted its female flight crew the right to opt out of working its soon-to-be-opened route to Tehran after the airline's demand that they wear a "loose fitting jacket and headscarf" before leaving the plane was met with fierce resistance by staff and unions.

Unions responded to a demand in an internal memo to workers, saying the airline was forcing female staff to dress in a way that is an "ostentatious religious sign" and runs counter to French law. The episode also highlights the broader ongoing tensions in France between the law and its Muslim population.

Air France had initially flagged the possibility of penalties for staff who would not follow the dress code. But after meeting with airline unions on Monday, the airline human resources director, Gilles Gateau agreed that any staff who are allocated to the route and do not wish to comply can switch to another flight, according to Mashable.

"While we regret not having been heard earlier, we are delighted to have convinced Mr. Gateau of the legitimacy of our action," UNAC, one of the unions in the meeting, said in a statement.

However, staff who do work the route have to adhere to the dress code because Iranian law requires it. Air France female workers are normally given a choice between wearing a skirt or trousers, according to The Telegraph.

"Iranian law requires the wearing of a veil covering the hair in public places for all women present on its territory. This obligation is not required during the flight and is respected by all international airlines serving the Iranian Republic," Air France said in a statement.

Earlier, union leaders explained their positions.

Christophe Pillet a member of the Air France staff committee and of the SNPNC union said his union had received calls everyday from the airline's female workers saying they didn't want to wear the headscarf, according to The Guardian

"They are forcing us to wear an ostentatious religious symbol. We have to let the girls choose what they want to wear. Those that don't want to must be able to say they don’t want to work on those flights," Françoise Redolfi, another union leader said.

The uproar was one incident amid broader tensions between French law and the religious liberties of its Muslim population. French women's rights minister, Laurence Rossignol, recently compared women who wear the burqa and niquab to "American negroes who supported slavery," The Guardian reported.

Ms. Rossignol's comments were in response to a question about fashion companies such as Marks & Spencer selling "burkinis" – swimwear that covers a woman’s entire body.

Air France begin flying to Tehran again in April after an eight-year ban since sanctions were placed on Iran in relation to its nuclear program.

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