Air France moved to defuse a clash with part of its work force after the airline demanded that female employees wear veils on a new service to Iran, leading a union to accuse the company of “an attack on women.”
The company circulated a memo on March 18 that outlined the dress standards, including a requirement that women “wear a head scarf and a wide and long garment to conceal their forms” on their arrival in the country, according to the National Union of Flights Attendants.
The union responded with outrage, calling the instructions “an attack on freedom of conscience” and demanding that Air France allow female employees to refuse to work on the route to Tehran, which is scheduled to start on April 17.
On Monday, the company relented, saying the assignment would be voluntary.
The firestorm over Air France’s memo highlighted long-running anxieties inFrance over the role of Islam in public life, concerns that have grown more acute in the wake of Islamic State terror attacks in Paris and in Brussels. Some accused the company of disrespecting women’s rights, while others said it was surrendering to radical Islam.
But the airline pushed back, characterizing its memo simply as a reminder that the Iranian legal system strictly regulates how women can dress in public.
“The law of Iran imposes the wearing of a veil covering the hair in public places to all women on its territory,” the airline said in a statement to Le Monde, the French newspaper. “This obligation, which therefore does not apply during the flight, is respected by all international airlines serving the Republic of Iran.”
The airline told Le Monde that it has previously instructed female employees to wear conservative clothes, including veils, while in Saudi Arabia on its service. Female employees working on its earlier service to Iran, which ended in 2008, also followed Iranian laws on women’s attire while in the country.
Employees are “obliged, like all foreign visitors, to respect the laws of the countries they visit,” the airline said.
The wearing of the veil is an emotionally charged issue in France, where a form of state secularism known as laïcité is held as a bedrock of the republic. It is illegal to wear a full face veil in public, and religious garments like Muslim head scarves, large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps are banned from public schools. Some have depicted Islam as a threat to secular tradition.
Elayne Oliphant, a professor of religious studies at New York University, said larger anxieties over terrorism and the cultural assimilation of France’s Muslim minority have led some people see a threat in “reasonable suggestions, such as dressing in ways that accord with the local laws of a country.”
The controversy provided grist for France’s right-wing politicians, who have made a regular practice of capitalizing on the country’s fears over radical Islam.
Florian Philippot, a politician from the right-wing National Front, wrote on Twitter, “Air France will never be Air Burka: Support the stewardesses!”
The airline’s Facebook page became a target for expressions of public anger. “Air France, you represent the capitulation of Europe. You should be ashamed.” one person wrote. Another called it a “forced hijab stunt.”
But other reactions were more muted. Bruno Le Maire, a center-right politician, gave the equivalent of a gallic shrug in an interview with the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro. His wife wore a veil on a trip to Iran a few years before, Mr. Le Maire noted.
“In Iran, whether all of us involved in the issue like it or not, the veil is worn,” he said. “That is just how it is, it is part of the tradition of Tehran and the Iranians.”