January 23, 2002
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military, in a policy reversal, no longer will require servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear Muslim-style head-to-toe robes when venturing off base.
Instead, wearing the robe, known as an abaya, "is not mandatory but is strongly encouraged," according to an order by Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, e-mailed to commanders in the region Saturday.
The Air Force's highest-ranking female fighter pilot is challenging the rule in court. Lt. Col. Martha McSally's lawsuit calls the policy unconstitutional and says it improperly forces American women to conform to others' religious and social customs.
McSally's lawsuit did not inspire the policy change, Col. Rick Thomas, Central Command spokesman, said Tuesday.
McSally's lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, also challenges policies requiring servicewomen to be accompanied by a man whenever they leave their base and to ride in the back seat of a car. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Thomas said those policies remain in effect.
McSally will not drop her case, said John Whitehead, a lawyer with the Rutherford Institute, a religious freedom group representing her. The new policy is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough, Whitehead said.
"What it says to us is that it's not been rescinded," Whitehead said. "It's like saying, "You're equal to us but you can't eat in the same restaurant because you're strongly encouraged to eat at one more fitting with your lower class.' "