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Published: Monday, 4/30/2001

A military woman's plight

Major Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, deserves praise, not censure, from the military hierachy for speaking out against discriminatory treatment of U.S. military women stationed in Saudi Arabia.

After protesting unsuccessfully through channels, the major went public about the U.S. policy forcing women who leave military installations in Saudi Arabia to deck themselves, neck to toe, in a black robe and black head scarf to satisfy the puritanical Wahhabi Muslim sect's religious police. Male personnel may not wear Muslim clothing.

More insulting, military women must ride in the back seats of cars, not drive them. If it was wrong for Rosa Parks to sit in the back of the bus, what's right about forcing a uniformed female American soldier to the back of a car? In uniform, on official business, military women must also swathe themselves. And Saudi air force pilots, insecure in their manhood, won't take orders from American women flight controllers.

The U.S. military high command, looking to avoid conflict and to respect cultural and religious customs, imposed the dress code, overlooking the fact that it flies in the face of American values and insults the uniform.

It's easy to see why American women, who have fought three decades for equal treatment in the military and elsewhere, sense retrogression and sellout. On the other hand, TV journalist Christiane Amanpour garbed herself in black to interview a conservative Muslim leader. And former Blade reporter Betsy Heil said she moved about more freely in Yemen in a black covering.

Modest dress is no stranger to many cultures, and it is not the modesty demand that upsets Major McSally. It's the Saudi women's forced uniform, which she sees as “Muslim clothing,” imposed on Christians. Why not modest American regalia, she asks.

Good question. The Saudi ruling family, itself not always high-church Muslim, embraced the puritanical Wahhabi sect many years ago as a ploy to unite the nation and secure power for itself.

To this day, as a result, the religious right is strong despite the arrival of McDonald's and Pokemon products (thriving though technically banned for promoting Zionism and gambling). While a burgeoning youth population seeks the sophistication of the larger world, Saudi women, who virtually belong to men, need their permission for everything. Cultural dissonance is growing and could roil the Saudi political pot, which our oil dependency requires stay calm.

Still, the American military does itself and American women a huge disservice by consenting to the imposition of restrictions of dress and behavior in foreign countries that are unacceptable at home. The uniform is debased if it must be concealed.

In this country we have protected the rights of Muslims and others to wear prescribed attire in school or anywhere else. Such protection should be reciprocal.



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