Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blog Against Sexism

Today is International Women's Day and has thus also been declared Blog Against Sexism Day. I'd love to write up something pithy or humorous about why sexism sucks, but frankly this fetus is sucking down my brain cells like it's part zombie and I haven't got the mental wherewithal to overcome it. So, instead, I thought I'd share a story with you, something that recently happened to my friend L. (who said I could post it). I'm choosing this story for blog against sexism day because I think it illustrates a particularly deep-set, complex, and problematic kind of sexism, and I'm interested in hearing what y'all think L. should have done under the circumstances. First, some things to know about L.: 1) she's bi-coastal, so she travels from LA to NYC on a regular basis. 2) She's fashion-model good looking (really: she was once on the cover of Seventeen magazine). 3) She's feisty, foul-mouthed, and smart as hell. Keeping these things in mind, here's her story:

Thursday afternoon I got on the 1:15 flight from New York to Los Angeles (a Continental flight I take all the time). The plane was filling up, but there were two empty seats next to me. Finally, two Orthodox Jews (men) came to stand next to me. One of them said I'd need to move.

"I paid for this seat," I said. "Is there some problem?"

He explained that it was against their religion to be seated next to a woman, and that I'd need to swap with a man so that they could sit down. I kept questioning this until a flight attendant came up, ascertained the problem, and ASKED ME TO MOVE. Then a guy two rows back said "Why don't you just move ... I'll switch with you." Finally I switched.

This is the part of the story where everyone says: "You shouldn't have moved." I totally agree, and you all know me to be mouthy, but I didn't want to start a big fight on an airplane, and also, the flight was delayed as it was, and I didn't want to become the bad guy by holding it up even more. So, that's why I didn't.

I'm saving up my "mad" for when the flight lands, so when it does, I go up and talk to the Continental gate agent. I tell her what happened, and she says "some people just have different beliefs," but doesn't offer an apology. Then I chase the two Orthodox Jews down and yell at them for awhile about how they should be ashamed of themselves, this is not what God wants them to do, etc. They refused to acknowledge me at all, saying only "we're sorry for you," and then returning to their conversation in Hebrew. Obviously, I didn't get their names.

The bottom line: I really think that if it's against their religion to sit next to a woman, then they should have bought three seats on the airplane (thereby guaranteeing that they wouldn't have this problem). Having to move to another seat because you're a woman is archiac, humiliating, and should not be advocated by the airline. This is tantamount to me belonging to some "white power" religion, and refusing to sit next to someone of a different race. I think this might be something that Continental does on a regular basis, since both of the representatives were so blase about it. Neither of them even THOUGHT to mention to the men that it might be inappropriate to ask me to move, or suggest that they be the ones to re-seat themselves.

I filed a complaint with Continental, as well as calling the National Organization for Women and Gloria Allred's office. Ms. Allred called me back and asked me to email her with the details.

The question is: how much further to pursue it? I don't want to be one of those people that blows things out of proportion. So....what would you do???

What's interesting to me about L.'s experience is the way it delineates certain ruptures in a supposedly PC corporate policy. From the airline's perspective, it seems there was no way to avoid either being sexist (or at least supporting sexist actions) OR being intolerant of a religious belief. But in fact, it goes even beyond that, as it's clear from the responses L. got that the airline representatives didn't even consider that their choice to support the request of their Orthodox Jewish passengers was also a choice to discriminate against L. purely on the basis of gender. This, even though that was explicitly stated by the passengers as their reasons for L. needing to move. L.'s story reinforces for me how invisible even the most overt sexism can still be, and how socially acceptable it is for almost any other "cause" to trump women's rights. (I also wonder if the airline would have responded differently if L. were older, not blonde, or less attractive - was it easier for them to dismiss her because of her looks?) At the same time, I completely understand L.'s response in the moment - the other passengers are waiting, the plane has already been delayed, it's just moving to another seat, why make a big deal? But of course (as she realizes) it IS a big deal, and there are surely better ways Continental could have handled the situation. So what do you think? What should the airline have done? What should L. have done? What would you do if it happened to you?