Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fat Police and Lithe Hostesses

If any definitive evidence was ever needed about the existence of overt, not covert patriarchy in the workplace was ever needed, the Delhi High Court has provided the same. The recent Delhi High Court decision to disallow the appeal of the air hostesses of Air India and Indian that their being grounded on account of being overweight was illegal should spark off some debate on the need for fitness as a criteria for employment – fitness in the medical sense as well as here in the case of the air hostesses on aesthetic grounds. This is because, typically in india , the only profession where fitness is really insisted upon is the Armed Forces – soldiers and officers who are medically unfit are routinely discharged and the practice is fairly well entrenched.

It may perhaps be argued that fitness is more important in some professions than in others and this could be true. But one still wonders if this is another subtle manifestation of the patriarchal streak in Indian society that lays over emphasis on a woman’s beauty and physical attributes than on her effectiveness and capability at work. Of course, if one looks at the letter of the judgment, the Court only emphasizes the obvious – it was written into the contracts of the air hostesses that they would be required to remain slim and trim and the airlines management is merely enforcing the contract. In fact till 1970, the retirement age of air-hostess in Air India was 30 and married women were not allowed to serve as hostess. Currently women are put to pasture by being assigned ground duties at the age of 50, while the male cabin crew can fly till they retire.

If there were not evidence enough, look at this. One place where the fitness factor is most critical but is often ignored is our police force. The police force in Karnataka, Chandigarh, Maharastra, and Punjab at the very least seem to have problems with fitness, obesity and alcoholism though I am sure these state polices are by no means the exception. In fact, we of late have become so fixated with the odd, glamorous encounter specialist that we seem to have forgotten that the fat, obese policeman armed with a stick and huffing after the culprit who has been caricatured plenty of time before I countless Hindi films is really the norm. This is even other wise a common enough sight in urban policing.

Now I am no feminist in any way, but on reading the news about the air hostesses, I could not help feel that contractual obligations in employment seem to be enforced some what selectively in the land. At a time, when terrorist attacks; big or small are becoming so common, the emphasis ought to have been on ensuring that the existing police forces are strong, not just in numbers and weaponry but on fitness too. After all after every such attack, there is a hue and cry about the number of lives lost and the amount of property damaged. And yet, there seems to be no hurry any where to enforce fitness obligations and ”ground” fat and obese police men, the way a bunch of air hostesses are being grounded. I mean, look at it this way – between an overweight air hostess and an overweight policeman, who would be a bigger liability in their job setting ? The answer should be obvious.

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