Air France Faces Headwinds Over Headscarves

The French national carrier’s female flight attendants have balked at a modesty requirement on flights to Tehran.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

The opening of business and diplomatic ties between Iran and a number of Western countries following last year’s nuclear deal hasn’t come without its share of cultural complications.

In January, charges of appeasement rang out across Italy after nude statues were mysteriously covered up at a museum during a state visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “When in Rome, do as the Persian do,” read one contribution to a viral critique of the episode on social media.

That same week, French President François Hollande canceled a lunch with an Iranian delegation over an objection to the requisite serving of wine at the meal. “Nobody should constrain anybody to drink or not to drink,” griped France’s ambassador to the United States on Twitter. (France later offered a breakfast truce, but Iran rejected it.)

This week, France has encountered another diplomatic crisis with the Islamic Republic after Air France flight attendants protested a rule that would force female workers to wear headscarves upon arrival in Tehran, where the French national carrier is starting thrice-a-week route later this month. The requirement, which conforms to Iran’s religious-modesty standards, would also oblige female flight attendants to wear a long-sleeved jacket and pants, eliminating the option of a knee-length dress.

“It is not our role to pass judgment on the wearing of headscarves or veils in Iran,” said Flore Arrighi, the head of France’s flight crews union, over the weekend. “What we are denouncing is that it is being made compulsory. Stewardesses must be given the right to refuse these flights.”

The carrier’s flights to Saudi Arabia already require female flight attendants to wear long robes in the country, but not the headscarves demanded of its female citizens. The debate over veils and headscarves has long caused controversy in France where, as Shadi Hamid noted in The Atlantic last year, 62 percent of citizens recently said the removal of religious headscarves is “necessary” for integration into French society.

In negotiations with the French government on Monday, union representatives received assurances that flight attendants who opt against flying to Tehran would not be subject to disciplinary measures. But as the lines continue to open between Iran and Western countries, it’s unlikely the detente, even on a cultural level, won’t come with its share of turbulence.