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Fat and flight

Updated January 30, 2019

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THERE was that time a couple of years ago when passengers on a full flight between Madina and Karachi had to stand in the aisle from take-off to landing. There was that other time when a flight leaving for London was delayed by over three hours because the pilot insisted that one of the male stewards was a known smuggler and he would not tolerate him on his aircraft. That flight finally did take off but not until the altercation could be resolved almost three hours later.

The inconvenience to passengers was not of course something of concern to those involved in the brawl. There have been more cases of drunk pilots and criminal crew, all of it eliciting the public’s horror but the management’s neglect.

Unsurprisingly, the cumulative lack of oversight and poor disciplining of staff has allegedly facilitated endless graft and corruption, mismanagement and misuse. Indeed, the story of PIA, once a carrier that evoked national pride and a feeling of home as soon as one boarded the aircraft even in a foreign country, has, passengers will tell you, become a tale of woe. With the recent appointment of a new CEO, it was assumed that things would look up, a more serious manner and a concern for profitability would correct matters, ensure better management, more oversight, and so on.

However, so far from what one has seen, PIA, under the new management seems to have different priorities. Instead of focusing on revenue management and improving the customer experience, it has turned its attention to the weight of the cabin crew.

The story of Pakistan International Airlines has become a tale of woe and misuse.

According to a memo circulated among the company’s employees, anyone found to be over 30 pounds above their prescribed weight after Jan 31 would not be permitted to fly. The grounded crew would be referred to the Air Crew Medical Centre for further evaluation and treatment until they have lost the extra weight. While undergoing the weight loss, affected staff of the airline would have to report to a ‘grooming cell’. The ‘correct’ weight mandated by the airline can be found on recently issued charts.

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This sudden attention to the weight of its flight attendants, a majority of whom are women, is not a result of any newfound concern for the health and well-being of its staff. The new concern shown by the newly revamped airline, it is reported, is because of an inordinate number of complaints received from passengers. The passengers in question complained that in recent months they have been on PIA flights in which they had been served by ‘obese’ flight attendants and that the airline needed to do something to correct the situation.

Unlike complaints about the condition of aircraft, safety, inappropriate conduct, delays, and lost luggage, this particular concern was attended to with great alacrity. The fat flight attendants had to become thin flight attendants or they would be kicked off the aircrafts of the national carrier.

There is a lot to unpack in this story. First, one cannot help but wonder what sort of passengers are obsessively monitoring the weight of the flight attendants who serve them. A safe bet is that these complaining passengers (if they do indeed exist) are male and imagine themselves entitled to being served tea and coffee by only the most slim and lithe young women.

Also read: Fat shame and feminism

Second, what sort of culture makes it publicly acceptable to shame a workforce of mostly women, not because of any actual inadequacy in job performance but simply because they may have appeared obese to the leering men whose advances they have to battle every day on the job? Unfortunately, it seems that the answer to both lies in the name of the airline itself; it is here in Pakistan where both of these actions are considered appropriate and even welcome.

So even in the air, even with failing planes and messed up accounts, the most Pakistani thing about PIA is the belief that it is okay to critique the physical appearance of its flight crew based on some largely arbitrary guidelines, and then impose employment consequences on just the same basis. If fat shaming, making someone feel poorly for the way they look after deploying oneself as the arbiter of what their body should look like, is okay in all other social situations, why indeed should it be forbidden to the national carrier?

Here are some reasons why. First, if the ‘new’ PIA wanted to forge an image that was new and committed to gender equality, then one way to do so would be to forbid treating the women they employ as decorative dolls whose bodies must fit into some imagined ideal.

Second, true concern for the health of employees does not use being overweight as a means to punish them but rather invests in the wholesale well-being of the person based on their ability to do their job well.

Third, body weight, unless it significantly impacts the way someone performs their actual job duties, is a personal concern that is only the business of the person who carries it.

Instead, the national carrier has chosen the way of most other misogynistic companies within the country, outfits run by men for men, where men think nothing of critiquing women’s bodies and imagining it fair game to use them as the basis for providing or denying employment. Making women’s bodies the basis of denying them employment benefits and drawing negative attention to them is a form of violence, a means of public shaming and an insistent denial of the fact that one’s body and health are one’s private concern.

It seems that PIA, revamped and renewed, has decided that this infliction of violence on its female flight crew is a bright new way to announce itself to the flying public. After all, everybody knows that excellence in flying equals thin women serving tea or coffee or Coke, 30,000 feet up in the air.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2019