By Dr Farzana Bari
March 18, 2013
On the 3rd of March, Air France flight 1139 from Vienna landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. As the plane stopped and passengers got up to retrieve their luggage, there was a little commotion in the plane. To my horror, I saw a man pulling a woman by her hair and punching her face. I looked around; people were visibly shocked but most of them looked the other way, some even with smiles on their faces. I was furious at the sight and shouted, “Get the man arrested”. No one moved, no action taken, no outrage seen. Meanwhile the door opened and the man along with another woman and a child walked away with complete impunity. Everyone picked their luggage and left the plane in silence.
I was stunned by the incident, stood there in disgust with a shared sense of humiliation and hurt besides the woman who was crying and explaining something to the crew in French. What shocked me the most was not only the incident but that I would never have imagined to see such a thing in a European airline.
The apathy and indifference of the passengers in general was deplorable and extremely upsetting. To be frank, it was worse than what I would expect in Pakistan. I am sure if a woman is beaten up in a public space like this, many will come forward to protect her. I realised how deeply entrenched patriarchal and individualistic values have shaped the western psyche. Everyone on that plane, passengers, the crew and even the woman herself behaved in such a typical and gender insensitive manner, which was terrible.
The indifference of the passengers was appalling. Perhaps the assumption was that if a man hits a woman in public, she must be related to him. Thus, it’s a private matter and no one should interfere. Even though hitting and beating is a crime in law in western countries, no one felt the moral obligation to do something to make sure that the man who committed a crime in public did not get away with it. I wondered had he beaten up another man, whether the passengers would have reacted the same way?
The Air France crew seemed incapable of handling the situation. They acted like dumb spectators and did not act at all. They let all the passengers leave including the man who committed the crime and then started inquiring from a woman about the incident. When I asked members of the crew why the man wasn’t detained, they became defensive. One of them quite simply lied, saying that they did not see what happened. Another said that the passengers should have done something about it. It was quite obvious that the situation had taken them by surprise and they didn’t seem to know how to respond. Either they were not trained, or they did not have the gender capacity to deal with such a situation in a professional manner. In a letter that I wrote later to the airline explaining what had happened, I strongly recommended that all crew be given gender training.
The woman who was violated also behaved in a typical manner. She started crying instead of crying out for help and demanding the arrest of the man who had hit her. The sense of humiliation perhaps was so deep for her that she could not think beyond the incident itself, as often is the case with battered women.
Subsequently, I could not but help think about the woman and the child who were travelling with the man. Both quietly followed him out of the plane. I was thinking what kind of life that woman must have had with such a man. A person who could behave in such an aggressive and violent manner with a woman who is a stranger to him, how would he behave with a woman with whom he has a relationship and a sense of ownership? And the poor child — what a role model he has to follow in his life.
The gory incident symbolises the collective psyche of the West and this is one of a singular lack of gender and political consciousness. The incident is a sorry reminder to those who claim that Western societies have entered in a post-feminism phase. Women in the West may have a certain amount of autonomy to make choices in their lives because of their ability to earn. However, as they are concentrated mainly in the secondary sector of the market doing lowly and low-paid jobs, their economic dependence on men continues. The inferior economic status of women continues to shape their gender consciousness and reinforce their dependence on men in a material and ideological sense in the industrialised world. The feminist movement in the West has lost its momentum and many women in the developed world seem to live under the illusion that they have fought and won the battle against patriarchy. This is clearly contrary to the reality that a western woman faces in her daily life.
This incident reminded me of gender issues in Pakistan. While away from the country, I managed to follow the way International Women’s Day was celebrated in Pakistan at the official as well as unofficial levels. This was contrary to the West where the day came and went by without anyone really taking note of it. There was no notice of it, either at the societal or the government level. Perhaps the lack of interest in commemorating International Women’s Day in the West shows that there is a false sense of security vis-à-vis gender equality, with citizens falsely believing that men and women in the West are equal. By and large, I felt that gender inequality was considered an issue that plagues only developing countries and that the so-called developed world had overcome it.
What I experienced on that Air France flight is a reminder to all of us that patriarchy is a global phenomenon and a continuing challenge to human societies and the women of the world. The material and social basis of women’s oppression and exploitation lies in the dual system of patriarchy and capitalism, which thrives on the free domestic labour of women. Therefore, the women of the world should realise that the battle for gender equality cannot be fought and won at the national level alone.
Dr Farzana Bari is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad