The first time Senior Master Sgt. Beverly Holt put on an abaya, she looked in the mirror and laughed.
“I said, ‘Somebody come here and get a picture of me in this getup,’” said Sgt. Holt, a 17-year Air Force veteran now stationed in Colorado Springs.
But to other U.S. servicewomen who, like Sgt. Holt, have been stationed in Saudi Arabia, the requirement to don the traditional black garb of Saudi women while off base was no laughing matter.
Now, five Republican senators, led by Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, have called for a review of the policy, concerned it violates the rights of U.S. citizens.
The policy was brought to the senators’ attention after Lt. Col. Mary McSally, the highest-ranking female pilot in the Air Force, complained publicly about the rule. Col. McSally said the policy violates her rights as a Christian and discriminates against women.
The requirement goes beyond Saudi law, which requires foreign women to dress modestly in long, loose-fitting pants or skirts and long-sleeved shirts. It also exceeds dress policy for female members of the U.S. State Department stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Men are allowed off base in long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Both sexes are allowed to dress however they wish while on base.
Air Force representatives said the abaya policy protects American women from harassment and violence at the hands of Saudi religious police, known as “mutawa.” Members of the mutawa, who carry canes, have arrested and struck U.S. servicewomen they considered improperly dressed, they said.
“It is a force-protection issue,” said Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, spokesman for U.S. Central Command. By adhering tightly to local custom, servicewomen are less likely to become terrorist targets, victims of mutawa harassment or objects of cultural conflict, he said.
Prior to the Gulf war in 1990, the Pentagon, concerned about Saudi religious laws prohibiting the public worship of religions other than Islam, ordered U.S. chaplains in Saudi Arabia to remove religious insignia such as crosses from their uniforms when off base.
The decision to leave base is a personal one, so no woman is actually required to wear an abaya, Col. Thomas said.
But Sgt. Holt, enamored of the local open-air markets and their exotic goods, often ventured from the self-contained community of the U.S. air base near Riyadh to the nearby town. Since women are prohibited by Saudi law from driving, Sgt. Holt was always accompanied by an American serviceman.
Women are required to be fully dressed beneath the abaya in long pants or skirts, socks to cover their ankles and long-sleeved shirts. According to the military briefing Sgt. Holt received when she arrived, any visible skin below the neck is considered pornography.
Sgt. Holt followed the rules to the letter but was confronted by the mutawa anyway, she said, after the U.S. military, in a short-lived attempt to soften its policy, temporarily allowed women to go with their hair uncovered in places such as shopping malls.
Hair uncovered, Sgt. Holt was talking with a merchant when she heard a loud banging immediately behind her. The shopkeeper nudged her, and she turned to find a member of the mutawa beating his cane against the wall directly beside her head.
“He pointed his cane at me and said, ‘Cover your hair,’” Sgt. Holt said. “It scared me once I realized it was me he was doing that to. I had no doubt at that point that if I didn’t do what he said, I would be arrested.”