-- 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
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
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
pilot with the South Carolina National Guard and a Gulf War
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
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
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.''