Two Aeroflot flight attendants are to have their gender discrimination claims against the airline heard in court in Moscow this week in the first case of its kind to involve a major, state-controlled Russian company.
The two women, both in their 40s, are suing after the Russian carrier photographed and measured all flight attendants and, their claim argues, took those women who were a Russian size 48 (a UK size 14) or larger off the much coveted – and better paid – long-haul international flights. They are among hundreds of female Aeroflot employees who say they’ve been discriminated against.
“Perhaps the government is beginning to feel a bit of shame,” one of the complainants, Evgenia Magurina, said before her appeal at the Moscow city court on Wednesday. “If this happened in America, they’d all be on strike.”
The two women both lost their cases in local courts in April.
Magurina, 42, and fellow complainant Irina Ierusalimskaya, 45, say Aeroflot has embarked on a campaign to make their staff – whose uniforms include red skirts and jackets embroidered with a hammer and sickle logo – younger and more attractive. The group jokingly call themselves STS, an abbreviation of the Russian for “Old, Fat and Ugly”.
Magurina said she was between a 48 and the next size up. While there is also a cut-off size for men no male employees have appealed to the country’s cabin crew union about a reduction in salary or being taken off routes, according to Sergey Saurin, the lawyer representing the two women.
Aeroflot, a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which includes other major carriers such as Delta and Air France, denies the Russian women’s claims. “Aeroflot does not place geographical restrictions on where individual members of cabin crew may fly,” said Vladimir Alexandrov, the airline’s deputy chief executive for legal matters. “We view any selectivity policy based on standards other than aviation requirements as completely unacceptable,” he said in a statement.
However, Aeroflot representatives had appeared to tacitly acknowledge that such a policy was indeed in place at a press conference in April. “Aeroflot is a premium airline and part of the reason people pay for tickets is the appearance of its employees,” said Pavel Danilin, a member of the airline’s public council.
Nikita Krichevsky, another member of Aeroflot’s public council, said the penalties should not be seen as a salary docking but as an incentive to lose weight.
Magurina has submitted pay stubs showing the difference in her salary – a drop of about 20% – after she was demoted. She is seeking half a million rubles in damages (£6,600) and wants Aeroflot to admit that it discriminated based on grounds of gender. If unsuccessful this week in the Moscow court, the two women plan to take their case to Russia’s supreme court and the European court of human rights if necessary. Ierusalimskaya’s case is to be heard on Monday.Soviet-era employment rules in Russia can feel both enlightened and woefully out of date. Women enjoy longer maternity leave than many European counterparts, but they are also banned from more than 450 types of jobs, including conducting a freight train and driving a bulldozer.
Amnesty International last week called on the Russian government to abandon such restrictions as a 31-year-old aspiring captain took a Russian shipping company to court after it refused her the role on the basis of her gender.
The case against Aeroflot comes as Russian women grapple with significant changes to their lives, in what Magurina described as “a new war against women” in the heavily patriarchal country, where feminism is still widely considered a dirty word.
Russia will mark 100 years since the October Revolution, which gave women freedoms unparalleled elsewhere in the world. In 1917, all Soviet women were given the right to vote; three years later, the Soviet Union became the first state in history to legalise abortion. The early Soviet feminists advocated free love, women fought on the front lines of the second world war and, in 1963, a young astronaut from central Russia became the first woman in outer space.
But now, as Russia flexes its muscles on the global stage, activists say the country has arrived at a time of shrinking freedoms. “Modern Russia is about being strong. And within this context, women are more objectified than before,” said women’s rights activist Alena Popova. She spent much of last winter protesting against recent changes to domestic violence legislation, standing in freezing temperatures outside government buildings.
Lawyers say the changes to the law, which decriminalised certain aspects of domestic violence if it happens not more than once a year and does not result in a concussion, has been interpreted as giving abusers free rein and the number of women being beaten has soared.
There is also growing pressure to outlaw abortion in Russia. Due in large part to the growing strength of the Russian Orthodox Church, an anti-abortion campaign has accelerated in recent months.
For Magurina, her personal struggle is eclipsed by a greater sense of injustice. “People keep asking me why I would try to take on a system. But someone has to start the revolution somewhere,” she said.