‘Gender separation’ on flights: What happens in Saudi Arabia?

unnamedI spent most of the past week working on follow-ups to a story that hit the headlines last week: the El Al-ultra-Orthodox-seat-switching saga.

In brief, for those who aren’t familiar with the story, Israeli carrier El Al Airlines is facing a backlash from customers regarding ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers who refuse to sit next to women on flights and ask to switch seats. This is a common occurrence. Most of the time, if people agree to switch, it doesn’t lead to any serious disruption or delay, but every once in a while – such as on an El Al flight on the eve of Jewish New Year – it can. Earlier this week a woman from Chicago launched a petition urging El Al to act, claiming that the airline permits passengers to be “bullied, harassed, and intimidated into switching seats.” El Al, like other airlines, says they just try to accommodate all customer requests, and that they aren’t planning on putting into place any policy to deal especially with this issue. Meanwhile, a Conservative rabbi in New York is urging people to use U.S. law to pressure airlines.

This is a highly charged issue. Ultra-Orthodox Jews can interpret Jewish law as they choose, and, some people argue, if others don’t mind switching, if there is no delay to the flight, and if other passengers’ safety isn’t compromised, then there doesn’t need to be a problem. On the other hand, this is by no means every Jew’s understanding of Judaism, and for some, being asked to move because of their gender is offensive and discriminatory. People who oppose sex segregation in public spaces wonder, why acquiesce to this in the air? Whichever side of the fence you sit on, this puts airlines and their flight crews in a very difficult position.

Judaism, of course, is not the only religion whose adherents believe in separation of the sexes. Ultra-Conservative Muslims also separate between men and women, as well as following codes of modesty when it comes to women’s dress, much like Jews. Let’s take probably the most extreme example of gender segregation in a Muslim country: Saudi Arabia.

Under the Saudi kingdom’s ultra-Conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, gender segregation is enforced in most public spaces and strict limitations are put on women’s freedoms. In February, for example, Reuters cited local Saudi press reports that the family of a woman who died of heart problems claimed medics couldn’t get to her in time because men weren’t allowed in her women-only university.

But let’s get back to the airline question. How does gender segregation play out – if at all – on flights in, to and from Saudia Arabia? And if it does play out, how do airlines deal with it?

I found a review of Saudi Arabian Airlines – which operates as Saudia – on HubPages. The review gives a fascinating first-hand glimpse into this very issue. It is only one account, and of course there is a huge difference between living under gender segregation law in Saudi Arabia and being an ultra-Orthodox Jew in New York. However, what reviewer Tony Earley describes sounds a lot like what some passengers flying between the U.S. and Israel say they experience. Even though in Saudi Arabia there is law mandating gender segregation, from what he says there is no actual gender segregation on flights in Saudi Arabia either; people who don’t want to sit next to the opposite gender negotiate to swap seats, too.

Tony writes:

“Saudi women will only want to be sat next to their family or other women, anything else is unacceptable. This can lead to a lot of seat shuffling before departure as no allowance for this is made when allocating the boarding passes. Thankfully this can be a short process as on many of the flights the number of women travelling is very small, however I have seen women leave the aircraft as they cannot sit alone!”

I contacted Tony, a business consultant originally from the U.K. who now lives the Philippines. He told that me during the four years he spent living and working in Saudi Arabia, he often flew around the country for work and the seat switching took place all the time:

“The seat switching occurred on almost EVERY flight and could be quite complicated as not every man would be willing to move and it is not just women that wanted to move but also couples that did not want their wife sat next to another man but still wanted to remain sat together. Often this would cause 10-15 minute delays on the take off time. Often there would be a group of women stood at some point in the plane waiting for all of the men to be moved around to make room for them. Many women that flew on a regular basis would not even bother going to a seat, they would just wait with the other women to be seated by the staff.”

He says he saw this occur mainly on internal flights, but also on some flights in and out of the country.

Similarly to the El Al switch-gate, he said that, “Most men do not switch seats, some do, but most request that the woman is moved!” It is rare, he says “to see a man and woman sat next to each other unless they are married or related (or at least acting as if they are!).”

Seat-switching negotiations mainly happen through flight attendants who approach customers to swap seats. He has seen a few passengers getting angry because of the delays, “but the attendants just carry on with the reseating.”

What about before getting on the plane?

“ The airport waiting areas are not generally “officially” segregated but due to the nature of the country you will see people finding seating according to their beliefs. The security check in however is fully segregated and women will go through a different channel to the men where they cannot be seen at all.”

Did he ever sit next to a woman on flight in the Saudi Kingdom?

“I have sat next to a woman on a flight from Riyadh to Jeddah and she was asked by almost every member of the flight crew if she wanted to move but refused. We spent the entire flight chatting together much to the disgust of the men sat next to us who were giving us some most unpleasant looks. When we landed however we ensured that we were no where near each other to avoid any issues in the terminal. I also had a Saudi woman sit next to me in Riyadh airport because she wanted to talk to me – here I exchanged a few words then made some excuse to move as we could easily have gotten into serious trouble.”

I haven’t come across similar accounts of flights on Saudia, but I will keep looking, and would be interested to here from anyone about their experiences – if anyone feels like leaving a comment about this, please do. In the meantime, one airline which frequently flies to the Gulf told me that they don’t have more of a policy than El Al does when it comes to dealing with ultra-Orthodox men, and that they also try to accommodate everyone’s wishes.

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7 Responses to ‘Gender separation’ on flights: What happens in Saudi Arabia?

  1. Really interesting article. Have you ever been asked to swap seats? Would you say yes?

    • af says:

      I have never been asked to swap, and I’m not sure how I would feel/respond. I’d like to think that I would say no out of principle, but if my saying now held the flight up, would I feel pressured to say yes? possibly… how about you?

      • I’m pretty sure I would say yes, because I tend to be very accommodating and English if someone asks me to do something. But I also think I’d feel aggrieved if I realised it was about a disgust or taboo that supposedly resides on my body because of my sex 🙂

  2. Jeet hormuz says:

    So that’s it then. In order to justify the blatant gender discrimination that is orthodox jewry, you compare them with the worst gender bias on the planet and take solace that you are marginally better. Sorry but that’s a really lousy argument.

  3. af says:

    That wasn’t exactly my point., Jeet, and this blog post isn’t trying to argue anything one way or the other. The post points to evidence that it looks like something similar happens on Saudia airlines as is does on El Al and other carriers flying between Israel and the U.S. I think that’s fascinating.

  4. Pingback: Report: Saudi Arabia’s national carrier to ban gender-mixing on flights | The Paper Dispatch

  5. Pingback: Sex, sex, sex or why I think some Saudia Arabians started visiting this blog | The Paper Dispatch

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