Saudi rules anger top Air Force pilot Female officer speaks out against  Muslim dress code for Americans  By Edward T
   

Saudi rules anger top Air Force pilot Female officer speaks out against
 Muslim dress code for Americans

By Edward T. Pound
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- Maj. Martha McSally is the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, the first woman in that service to fly a combat aircraft into enemy territory. And she does not like the way she and other American military women are treated in Saudi Arabia, the male-run oil kingdom they are risking their lives to protect. In Saudi Arabia, McSally says, she is ''treated like a Muslim piece of property.'' Whenever she and other women leave their military installations, their commanders require them to wear a black head scarf and a black neck-to-toe robe, known as an abaya, to satisfy the Saudis' strict interpretation of Islamic religion.

They also must sit in the back seat of cars. The Defense Department, McSally says, does not want to offend its host. ''It is a customary Muslim outfit for women,'' she says, ''but I'm not Muslim and I'm not Saudi. I am a Christian.'' The Pentagon sees the dress code as a necessity. Officials say it respects cultural and religious customs, avoids conflict with the Saudi public and helps the military complete its mission. To McSally, the Pentagon is abandoning American values by imposing such a dress code on its women
while allowing men to dress in casual Western clothes when off base. She says she's not arguing for unrestricted dress but believes women should be allowed to ''cover up in American clothes.''

McSally has quietly tried to persuade the Pentagon to modify the policy for the past six years. She discussed the issue with then Defense Secretary William Perry in 1995. She lobbied then-Air Force Secretary Whit Peters last year, and she has written memos and met with top generals in the Air Force.

She says she got nowhere. Now, she says, it is time to speak publicly -- and she hopes her candor will not damage her career. ''I've fought and spoken and been patient and worked within the system for so long to try and effect some change in this policy so, the fact that I would just be truthful I would hope wouldn't hurt me and, if it does, then so be it,'' she says. Not all women see it her way. Air Force Maj. Lisa Caldwell, a senior spokesman for U.S. forces in the Middle East, has no problems with the restrictions.

She says the policy allows military women to ''show respect for Islamic law and Arabic customs.'' Caldwell is based at the Eskan Village military compound near Riyadh, the Saudi capital. She says whenever she leaves the compound, she puts on her scarf and robe. ''I am a guest here and I want to blend into the culture,'' she says. ''That old saying, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.' '' Capt. Richard Johnson, an Air Force spokesman based in the United States, adds, ''We abide by the rules set by the government.

It is not just a cultural issue, it is a force-protection issue. You always
have to be on the alert for terrorist attacks. We just want to blend in with the population, be less of a target to terrorists.'' Home to the holiest of Islamic sites, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is a religious state where freedom of worship is not allowed. The country's leaders also prohibit or restrict freedom of speech, press, assembly and association. Women's rights are restricted. In public, they must cover themselves head-to-foot, they can't drive and they must sit in the back seats of cars. Rules and codes of conduct are enforced by the mutawa, the religious police. ''Culturally, they are different and it's their country,'' says Col. Jet Jernigan, an F-16
pilot with the South Carolina National Guard and a Gulf War veteran.

The strict Islamic customs, he adds, ''clearly make it more complicated to operate there.'' In recent years, that reality has hit home for Jernigan's F-16 unit and others who have deployed to Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis allow female Air Force air traffic controllers to work there, they are not permitted to talk to pilots. Jernigan says the male Saudi pilots don't like to be given instructions by females. ''They wanted them off the radio,'' he says.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is based on mutual need. The Saudis want a strong U.S. military presence and the United States wants to
safeguard global oil prices and the huge reserves in the Middle East. Since the Gulf War, the United States and allied air forces have enforced no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq to protect ethnic minorities and to prevent troop movements that could threaten Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces keep a low profile. The June 1996 terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers, which killed 19 Americans, caused the U.S. military to move to heavily guarded, remote sites such as Eskan Village and Prince Sultan Air Base at Al
Kharj. The Air Force says that it has about 5,000 people in Saudi Arabia, 17% of them women.

McSally, 35, who deployed to Saudi Arabia for a one-year tour last November, is one of the Air Force's great success stories. The valedictorian of her high school class in Riverside, R.I., McSally placed 25th in her graduating class of 1,000 at the Air Force Academy. But, at 5-foot-3, she was one inch shy of the minimum height requirement for pilots.

She got a waiver, based on her academic credentials and physical strength. A champion triathlete, McSally later became one of the first seven women trained as fighter pilots. She also served as a flight instructor and did tours in Kuwait in 1995 and 1996. While there, she flew her single-seat A-10 Warthog jet 100 hours over southern Iraq enforcing the no-fly zone.

Now, she runs search and rescue for that operation, based at Eskan Village. McSally is one of 39 female fighter pilots in the Air Force. She has been promoted to lieutenant colonel, effective May 1. She gave her blunt assessment of the dress policy in interviews with USA TODAY while on leave in the United States and in an exchange of e-mails. No indignities for men She says men do not face the same indignities.

They are directed, in writing, not to wear Muslim attire, she says, and are instructed to wear collared shirts and long pants when they leave their bases. McSally says she's no crusader. But, as a Christian, she says, she is highly offended by the policy. ''Just as we don't want to make someone who is not Jewish wear a yarmulke on their head, why would we have our female troops being mandated to wear Muslim clothing?'' Other women find the policy off-putting, she says, but are reluctant to tell the brass.

McSally tells of some discomfiting encounters with religious police: ''Some of our gals who have walked through a mall -- they are kind of lax on the headgear thing where some of them just wear them around their neck -- but there have been times where a mutawa comes up and just gets angry and starts kind of hitting them with little sticks and telling them, 'cover your head, cover your head.' '' McSally says she's not arguing for tank tops and short-shorts. ''All I am saying is I will wear baggy pants or a baggy skirt, I will wear a long sleeve shirt. I will even wear a hat if you want me to,'' McSally says. ''I mean, American clothes.

I appreciate that (the Saudis say) cover up, well, fine, these gals are American soldiers. They are not Saudi Muslim women.'' At a minimum, she says, American women should be allowed to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants when traveling at night in a car, between bases.

On official business, she says, women should be able to wear their uniforms, without covering themselves with the required black robe. McSally acknowledges that change could take time. ''Going downtown in free time to shop or eat dinner with friends'' in casual clothes, she says, would be a marked change requiring a commitment by the United States and the Saudis. She says U.S. officials could start by telling the Saudis how important it is for the two countries ''to have a mutual respect.'' She believes she can prompt change.

When she was deployed to Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait in the mid-1990s, women had to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts on base. After she raised the issue, the policy was changed to allow women to wear shorts on base. Separately, she says, military women in Kuwait were allowed to wear long pants and shirts off base.

McSally says she understands the Air Force concern about
protecting women from possible terrorist attacks but says there are times when there would be no risk if women dressed in American clothes. ''Women driving in a car with other American soldiers from one base to another or to the airport -- there is just no risk whatsoever,'' she says. After learning she would be deployed to Saudi Arabia last year, McSally says she did not plan to wear the Saudi robe and scarf.

When she informed senior officers of her decision, she says, she was warned that she would suffer ''serious
consequences'' if she refused to comply with the regulations. Later, she consulted a superior, Gen. Michael Moseley, in Washington. She says he advised her to wear the abaya and to press her views within the military, if she felt so strongly.

She decided to wear the abaya. ''I almost tubed my whole career over this,'' she says. Moseley says many soldiers don't want to wear the abaya but understand the necessity. ''The policy inside of this is huge,'' he says. After arriving at Prince Sultan Air Base in the evening last November, McSally put on an abaya and a scarf for the 70-mile ride to Eskan Village. ''I rode in a Suburban with tinted windows with a bunch of American men in collar shirts and jeans,'' she recalls.

Since then, she seldom has left the base. ''I don't want to go off base and wear the abaya.'' She sends others off base on work-related duties.

Not 'the same values' Her logic, she says, is: ''Saudi Arabia is a nation that does not have the same values as us. They are not democratic. Their human rights record is not real super.'' McSally adds, ''I understand for security reasons why we need to be allies with the Saudis. But, it is also part of our national security strategy to promote American values abroad.

We, in the military, sign up to give our lives for the freedoms that we value deeply and people have died for before us. ''I am certainly willing to suck it up with the rest of the troops in some harsh condition when we are all treated the same.

But, when you separate your troops into two groups and then impose the values of your host nation on one of them, to me that is abandoning your American values.'' She says superiors have told her that there was no intent to demean, that the Defense Department wanted to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and complete its mission without major incidents. ''I believe that,'' she says, ''but I wonder if I were a two-star general, would I have to wear an abaya and not drive.'' McSally says the Air Force has given her great opportunities. ''In general, the leadership has been very supportive of women in the military,'' she says. But the dress policy is ''ridiculous and unnecessary.''

 
 
   
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