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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Female Fighter Pilot Battles U.S. Military's Double-Standard in Saudi Arabia

by Michele Keller, Web Editor

The first woman in United States military history to fly a fighter jet in combat sued the U.S. Department of Defense in December over a policy that requires U.S. servicewomen—but not men—to wear Muslim dress and adhere to local customs while traveling off-base in Saudi Arabia.

In mid-January, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, issued an order saying that Muslim dress is "strongly encouraged" though no longer required for U.S. servicewomen. The order, however, leaves the final decision to local U.S. military commanders, many of whom continue to instruct servicewomen to wear a head scarf and full-length gown, or abaya, when away from the base.

In her suit, filed in Washington, D.C., federal district court, Lt. Colonel Martha McSally said the regulations required her to send the message that she believes women are subservient to men. Under the policy, female military personnel who leave Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia must be escorted by men at all times, and are not allowed to drive or ride in the front seat of a car.

U.S. Central Command has not changed those aspects of the policy, and McSally plans to continue her lawsuit because the new order doesn't go far enough.

Why Aren't Servicemen Required to Wear Beards?

Defense department officials reportedly constructed the policy to avoid offending conservative Saudi leaders and to protect U.S. troops from the harassment of local religious police.

But activists point to the fact that the U.S. State Department does not require female employees in Saudi Arabia to wear Muslim dress. The Saudi government has not officially advised non-Muslim Westerners of either sex to wear Muslim clothing, only to dress conservatively.

"If female diplomats can wear what they want, why can't the U.S. female troops?" said NOW Executive Vice President Karen Johnson, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, who calls the policy "outrageous."

"U.S. servicemen could comply with local customs by wearing beards, but the military would never issue a mandate that they do so—it goes against policy. In fact, military men in Saudi Arabia are actually prohibited from wearing Saudi garb, while women are required to wear it."

McSally, a graduate of the prestigious Air Force Academy, has said she believes the policy undercuts her authority as a senior officer and forces her to present herself as a member of a religion to which she does not belong.

In a "60 Minutes" interview broadcast on CBS on Jan. 20, she described the discrimination she experienced under the policy: "I have to sit in the back and at all times I must be escorted by a male . . . [who], when questioned, is supposed to claim me as his wife," she said. "I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but [in Saudi Arabia] I can't drive a vehicle."

Both McSally and her attorney have said publicly that her outspokenness on the issue has called her loyalty to the military into question, potentially causing irreparable damage to her career.

Johnson expressed hope that the Defense Department will renounce its "separate but not equal" policy, and that McSally will not be penalized for speaking out.

"The U.S. has influence in Saudi Arabia that it has been unwilling to use," Johnson said. "There is no reason for the Pentagon to order U.S. military women to abide by the rules of a Middle Eastern country in which women are not allowed to drive cars or vote. Discrimination against women serving their country is insulting and intolerable."

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