What’s the best way for an airline to respond to onboard sexual assaults on women? Take a zero-tolerance approach to criminal behaviour? Make an example of perpetrators? Install extra security onboard?
How about none of the above, and instead introduce a “women-only” row of seats on flights?
That’s the controversial new solution being offered up by Air India after a female passenger and a female staff member were sexually assaulted onboard their planes.
Beginning on January 18, six women per flight will have the option of booking in the airline’s reserved seating area, the Press Trust of India reported. The idea being that women flying alone might feel safer - i.e. less likely to be groped - if they stick together on the third row of economy class.
The initiative is a response to two instances of sexual assault on separate Air India flights over the past month. On December 21 a female passenger travelling from Mumbai to the US woke to find a man assaulting her, while two weeks later a male passenger was arrested for allegedly molesting a female steward on a flight to Delhi from Muscat.
The state airline announced a policy of restraining “out of control” passengers with plastic handcuffs, and offering a handful of women the option of separate seating when they book.
"We feel, as national carriers, it is our responsibility to enhance comfort level to female passengers," Air India’s Meenakshi Malik says in a statement reported by The Hindu. "There are a lot of female passengers who travel alone with us and we will be blocking a few seats for them."
Since when did “not being sexually assaulted” equate to “enhanced comfort”?
While it may be the airline’s responsibility to keep passengers safe, there has been much criticism of the “sexist” seating policy - namely that women are effectively being moved to deter potential sex crimes, with the onus being put on female passengers to prevent their own assaults.
And it’s probably of little comfort to the victim who was a steward – she won’t be given the option of a women-only section of the plane and was presumably walking or standing when she was targeted, something female passengers will surely be required to do on long-haul flights.
Ex-Air India executive director, Jitendra Bhargava told The Hindu the move was unnecessary and a "misplaced priority."
D. Sudhakara Reddy, national president of Air Passengers Association of India, added: "It is an impractical move and will lead to gender discrimination."
In September 2015 the same airline hit the headlines for grounding around 130 of its flight attendants, mostly women, because they were overweight.