Patriarchy On Plane: Women Cannot Escape Harassment Even In The Air

People carry the mindset of women being men’s property to the air too. So where are women safe, if not in flights that are miles away from the ground?

Rudrani Gupta
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India has the highest percentage of female pilots in the world. The country sets an example of gender equality in aviation globally. However, when we see the reality, the situation is just the opposite, You wonder how? Female crew members, pilots and passengers face harassment on a regular basis despite being empowered just because they are women. It is not out of the blue that in the US alone more than two-thirds of female attendants are harassed in their entire career.

I remember when I took my first flight, I was fascinated by the number of female crew. I was in awe of the aviation industry who employed so many women, setting examples of women's equality in our country. But I never knew that the reality inside is different. We all look at the aviation industry as the most modern means of travel. Only people with proper etiquette board the planes and respect the air hostesses and female pilots. But did anyone of us wonder that patriarchy creeps inside modernism too? Did any of us think that the female crew is one of the most oppressed sections of society?

Women's empowerment is nowadays used as a token to pull the statistics of gender equality and brush shoulders with other countries. However, when it comes to reality, women's empowerment is just a word and not a feeling. Women are still looked at as a marginalised section that is supposed to serve men.

Before writing this article, I interacted with a few air hostesses who vouched for tokenism. They revealed shocking incidents of how they are subjected to gender discrimination almost every day.

Gender discrimination against cabin crew

You must have come across the viral video of an air hostess being called a servant by a male passenger. While the air hostess could muster the courage and retort by saying, “I am not your servant”, many fail to do so. And this is not a demerit in the air hostesses but in the patriarchal mindset with which people board the flights.

“I saw a female crew crying. When I asked her about the reason, she said that a male passenger has been touching her inappropriately,” said Anamika*, an air hostess. “I approached the said male passenger and asked him to apologise. But rather than feeling guilty about his behaviour, he reacted very inappropriately. He said, “who are you to stop me”. The shocking part of this incident was the fact that the man was travelling with his kids and wife. He was sitting in the window seat but he kept on shifting to the aisle seat so that he can gain more access to the air hostess. “When I reprimanded the man, he came on to me and tried to harass me. But I took a stand and told him that he will be barred from taking any flight in his lifetime.”


This is not an isolated incident. Another air hostess, Karishma who has an experience of more than six years said, “I was flying to Bangkok and there was a group of men who were playing cards which had some sexualised pictures on them and I was completely unaware of that. When I reached their row to serve, one of them showed me his cards and asked, do you think I will win tonight?” she said. “I went numb for two minutes because this was so mentally harassing for me.” However, later the cards were confiscated and the man was handed over to security.

While these were the cases in which the aviation industry backed the cabin crew, there are many more in which there is no support or safety system. Companies at times ask the cabin crew to forget the incident because it happens to everyone. The cabin crew is expected to listen to the bad words and inappropriate looks of the male passengers because they can’t complain unless something happens to them physically. Male passengers are free to call air hostesses servants, prostitutes and address them with other verbal abuse.

This makes the cabin crew feel helpless. They are forced to bear mental harassment on a daily basis without being able to complain about it. It is as if bearing harassment has become a part of their duty. It becomes even more uncomfortable when a cabin crew flies with her family. She is harassed in front of her family members who have to helplessly see the woman of their house being harassed.

“We are appointed on the flights to ensure the safety of the passengers. However, we do not receive respect as much as doctors get. Our identity is restricted to serving tea to the passengers while wearing clothes that are revealing and uncomfortable,” told Anamika to SheThePeople. Adding to this, another cabin crew Sanjana* said, “We are forced to wear clothes that are designed in a way that reveals our inner wears. Even during winters, we are not allowed to wear warmers because that will hide our body posture.”

Even female pilots, of which India is proud, face gender discrimination. Speaking about passengers’ mindset, Karishma said that when there is a female pilot in the cockpit, passengers say, “Female pilot hai? Salamat pohcha dengi?”  “And when it comes to cabin crew, men pass lewd comments and press the call bell infinite times just to see us walking towards them. It is more about the mentality of they perceive women as someone who is here on this planet “to serve men”, she added.

Even though the female crew wear batches of girl power, that doesn't translate into reality.


Gender discrimination against female passengers

Gender discrimination is not limited to cabin crew or female pilots. Female passengers too face it and feel unsafe in one of the most modern means of travel. We all came across the recent shocking case of a man peeing on an elderly woman on a flight. Many ignored it as an incident that happens once in a blue moon. But that is just not true. Sanjana* told SheThePeople that a female passenger was continuously pressing the call bell and when the air hostess reached her, the passenger showed a WhatsApp message in which it was written that the male co-passenger was touching her inappropriately. “I shifted her seat, offered her water and asked if she wants to register a complaint. But the woman said that she has kids and she doesn’t want to be dragged into this.”

Moreover, Karishma said, “Not only male but female passengers have also touched crew members inappropriately. Such incidents are a shame because this just shows that people have not learnt any travel etiquette. There’s a certain way in which passengers should behave with the crew and their co-passengers. But people assume that by buying a ticket, they have bought the airline and the employees too.”

Patriarchy on plane

There are still many incidents that prove that no matter how modern we become, patriarchy follows us everywhere. People carry the mindset of women being men’s property to the air too. No matter how much India progresses in gender equality, the patriarchal mindset always lurks behind which undoes all the progression.

So where are women safe, if not in flights that are miles away from the ground? Where do women seek safety if not from the companies they work for? Doesn't this show that despite the empowerment of women, society hasn't gotten rid of the patriarchal mindset? Doesn't this show that women are financially empowered but not safe or free? When will we understand what women's empowerment really means? Women want to fly, but society cuts down their wings each time they rise.


Views expressed are the author's own.

*Names have been changed on request. 

Suggested Reading: Airline Crew-Passenger Spat: Why Is Cabin Crew Always Looked Down Upon?


Gender discrimination women in aviation industry