Everyone can fly, but not everything can…
Many jobs have safety equipment in the form of clothing. Doctors wear gloves, construction workers wear hard hats, deep-sea divers wear wet suits. Sometimes attire requirements make less sense. When working at a restaurant, for instance, I was told to remove my eyebrow piercing. It didn’t impact performance, cleanliness, or safety, but I took it off because one, I wanted to keep my job, and two keeping it on wasn’t worth the fight.
Sometimes employees are asked to remove things that are worth the fight. These items do not limit one’s ability to do the job and have great personal value. Take the recent case of a Disney employee who was asked to remove her headscarf, for example. She sued, and she won. Now she can wear her scarf at work. Sometimes the system works.
This isn’t the first time a woman had to fight an American company for her right to wear a headscarf.
In 1995, flight attendant Rose Hamid returned to her job with US Airways after a short leave wearing a headscarf. She was transferred to a position away from public eyes. It was only in 2005 that the airline changed its rule and allowed the wearing of headscarves.
Muslim Americans only make up 0.6 per cent of the population, but everyone in the United States is supposed to have freedom of religion. In most cases, assuming that an article of faith will have no negative impact on job performance, accommodations can be made. So in Malaysia with its religious diversity and 60 per cent Islamic population, it should also be leading the way for tolerance, right?
I travel regularly with MAS and AirAsia, two proudly Malaysian companies. However, I just came to the realisation that their flight attendants never wear hijabs. How could a national airline not include a significant segment of its population? It is not like MAS or AirAsia explicitly say only “non-hijabbed” women can apply. Maybe a Malaysian woman in hijab has never applied? That does not seem statistically possible.
What has kept so many Malaysian women from applying to be flight attendants? Are they simply complacent? Maybe they could learn something from the Disney or US Airways case. Instead of saying, “Oh, I could never do that job because it is not for my kind of person”, say “I can do that job — my way — and they are going to accommodate me because my request is reasonable.” If they are automatically rejected for employment, I would like to hear either airline explain why.
I am not writing to promote hijabs or any other articles of faith. I am simply writing on behalf of choice and what I consider to be reasonable. If a woman wearing a hijab isn’t interested in working on a plane, she shouldn’t apply. If she can’t perform the required tasks of being a flight attendant, she shouldn’t be hired. If a blonde woman with a red hair clip can’t show passengers where the exits are, she shouldn’t be hired either. I looked up the Cabin Staff job requirements for MAS, and it states that applicants should have a “pleasant personality and a genuine passion in customer service.” If an employee can meet these requirements while wearing a hijab, she should certainly be able to compete for the job. Otherwise, this situation is no better than US Airways in 1995.
Airlines in Malaysia already seem to be in the hot seat regarding woman’s rights. For instance, WAO and Sisters in Islam have taken it upon themselves to uncover relevant issues of inequality. Apparently, women can’t be pilots for MAS. It gets worse.
According to a memorandum by the Malaysia Airline System Employees Union, women can’t work after having a third child, or past the age of 40. Meanwhile, male attendants continue to fly past 40 regardless of their number of children. This discrepancy just doesn’t make any sense.
Conservative Muslims also argue that Malaysian airline companies need to dress their employees in a more moderate way. While I don’t agree with a mandatory change for ALL ATTENDANTS, I do think there can be some accommodation for those who want to dress more conservatively. A stylish MAS or AirAsia hijab would work just fine, wouldn’t it? Or are the airlines afraid that, by allowing articles of faith, their flight attendants would lose the “sexiness” factor they think their customers want?
In a developed country like Canada, if a company rejects an employee on the basis of faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, lawsuits will follow. Many companies go out of their way to hire minorities because they are afraid of being sued or accused of discrimination. Here in Malaysia, companies openly discriminate when putting out applications and race/religion requirements can be blatantly stated (e.g., Malay applicants only). It seems when it comes to flight attendants, some requirements are just understood.
If Malaysia is still serious about being a “developed” country by 2020, some things need to change. Inequality needs to be confronted. This flight attendant example should be contrasted to unnecessary quotas, scholarships and benefits.
We are talking about young girls who can’t dream of working for their country’s airline because they are doing what their family tells them to do to be good and proper. These airlines represent Malaysia to the world. Many transiting visitors only see these companies and the airport.
Why aren’t there more women in hijab working on the airlines? If it is forbidden because it is too risqué of a job and not fit for a good Muslim woman — who is to say that the other Malay flight attendants aren’t good Muslims? Whether it is the company or the individuals, something is wrong here.
By: Colin Boyd Shafer - teaches social science at a college in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Aside from writing/ranting, he concentrates most of his time doing documentary photography, trying to create a dialogue around sensitive issues. You can follow his work at ‘Colinizing Photography’ on Facebook
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist / writer.