Sneha (name changed) is a 28 year old air hostess in a domestic airline who likes to be addressed as a cabin crew member rather than the ambiguous designation of an air hostess as she deems it to be. It was not easy for Sneha to switch from a secure bank job which was highly revered by her father owing to the job security and the simple nature of the job profile. It meant Sneha who lives in a small middle class nuclear family with her mother, father and elder sister had a strict time limit to come back to the house by 7 pm and the bank job offered that luxury.

“I saw one of my friend who was a cabin crew member and the freedom she had in terms of mobility due to her job, she would go out of the house any time in the night as her work demanded that and had no time restrictions at all,” says Sneha who eventually decided to try her luck and gave an interview at another competing airlines where she was rejected because she was half a kilogram less than what was the stringent requirement set for recruitment. Sneha was really bogged down by that incident and continued her bank job for three more years until she had to leave her job because of a misunderstanding at her work place and decided one more time to give an interview in Spice Jet airlines where she has been working for the last five years now.

In these five years of flying domestic and international routes, Sneha has seen it all and hesitatingly states that sexual objectification is an unnecessary obstacle in her profession which every women cabin crew has to go through. She has now understood the many problems and challenges which the job offers many of which she says, she has found a way to handle while others will change only with time when the profession will evolve for the better in India taking into account the principles of gender equality and gender justice while also taking positive steps to break the existing prejudiced and stereotypical understanding of an air hostess in the society.

“I am even trained to deliver a baby on flight along with many more skills which require deep knowledge and study of hours and people still think that a women cabin crew is just an unqualified good looking waitress who are there to serve them,” says Sneha as she mentions that often it is the educated men passengers who harbour such an understanding about them, clearly implying that education of people has nothing to do with the prejudices they have, in fact gender injustice, gender violence, misogyny and sexism can never be inversely proportional to education. She feels that if the nature of education is patriarchal then it only contributes to such gender insensitivity.

In her five years of service, Sneha has experienced it all, from daily sexual objectification which has almost become a part of her job as she clearly states that her weight is checked every month and with increasing age it becomes difficult to maintain the same weight which the airline demands. She also does not forget to mention that her company has a clear rule that the dress should be at least four fingers above the knee length and the nuisance that her skin colour stockings cause which according to her are highly weather inappropriate. “Well, when I stand at the Leh airport in front of the aircraft gate in that dress and smile at the passengers entering in the aircraft while I am actually freezing, it becomes really difficult. The dress should be weather appropriate. Similarly in summers I operate from places which are extremely hot and can’t even wash my face because the makeup would come off and hence I end up only applying more make up on my face to fight the sweat which comes,” adds, Sneha.

Sneha faces many medical conditions which excessive flying may cause but she is not aware of the fact that her medical conditions have a relation to her excessive flying, however she perceives that her medical problems could be because of her job but was amazed to know the factual information regarding the relation between excessive flying and the physical and mental health hazards. She mentions about unruly passengers and how difficult they could get some times, she talks about an incident which left her in tears in the aircraft.

“There was this middle aged man who had come in an extremely bad mood to the flight and started a quarrel with my fellow crew, the crew member requested me to change sides with him so I went to the back of the aircraft and he went in the front to avoid that man. That man kept on saying such bad things intentionally against our profession and our airlines that even I felt a little demotivated and quietly sat down on my seat at the back of the aircraft. He then looked at me and shouted in front of everyone, ‘Why the fuck are you not smiling ? You are paid to smile.’ I was in tears at that moment. We also have a dignity.”

Her sentiments reflected well, when she said, “Ours should not be a dress, it should be a uniform, look at the dress of the captain, it invokes respect in people, we should also have a uniform which invokes respect in people so that they do not dare to talk to us like that. I am fine wearing such a dress if I am going to a party, but not at my work place especially considering the strenuous work of serving and even cleaning which we all do during the flight.”

She also said that sexual harassment is common especially perpetrated by men passengers, some intentionally extend their hand at the aisle seat to touch her and it is not difficult for a woman to differentiate a bad touch from an unintentional one. During one such incident she had to ask the passenger sarcastically if he was done rubbing his hand on her back or would he like to rub some more, after which out of shame he did not trouble her more. Some captains also try different ways of coming close or just simply hassling her if she is not very friendly to them which is not her job.

In another incident a passenger held her hand and was not ready to leave her, it was then that she decided to fight him and say, “Even if my job goes now, I will make sure you go to the jail if you will not stop misbehaving with me.” After this other passengers and crew joined her to protest but the passenger walked out free after the flight as she did not file a complaint against him. In fact her understanding that her job might go if she decides to pick up a fight with her molester speaks a lot about the profession and its sexist and misogynistic work environment and terms and conditions of work. She also understands the impact which airline advertisements have on people and accepts that air hostesses are shown as an eye candy in them for the men, she feels that such advertisements if are not fully responsible than are at least partially responsible for the behaviour of many unruly men passengers.

“I have celebrated Diwali just once in last five years at my home, even that one time I went for a flight early morning and came back around 9 pm in my house. There are no festive holidays for us, I understand it is a challenge and everyone copes with it in their own way, my younger colleagues even cry when they miss out on being with their families on festivals, I am fine with it but there should be at least compensatory offs.”

She feels that the job makes her lonely as it constantly interferes with her personal and social life. The cheap mentality of the society regarding her profession especially of relatives and neighbours get really taxing for her sometimes. Another mental health issue which she constantly faces is of job insecurity. “In India the maximum age till which you can work as a cabin crew member in a private airline is 40 and due to various reasons many of us do not even complete that, age should not be a criteria for flying, fitness should be the criteria. In the west, fitness is the criteria for the job but in India beauty and ideal body standard along with age takes preference, the younger the better is the criteria, which is not right.”

Sneha is not all skeptikal about her profession. She is proud to be a cabin crew member and accepts that her job has made her tough and she can now lend out a helping hand to any of her friend who is in need since she has travelled the world and her work has made her an independent person but she does acknowledge the scope of immense improvement in the work ethics, terms and conditions and work environment of the profession while pertaining to women cabin crew. She clearly mentions that there are clear guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment which the airline follows but filing it means a lot of hassle for me or for any women crew and hence they do not file it. She does not use the exact words, but she tries to refer to a lack of conducive work environment where such provisions which are meant for her safety can be used without the fear of her job getting affected which already is a job which she considers as really short lived.

This is a book extract selected by the author Rahul Kapoor from his book Women and Work: The Sky is Full of Sexism, Manak Publications