- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002


The U.S. military will no longer require servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear Muslim-style head-to-toe robes when 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 has been challenging the mandatory rule in court. Lt. Col. Martha McSally's federal lawsuit calls the policy unconstitutional and says it improperly forces American women to conform to others' religious and social customs.

The lawsuit did not inspire the policy change, Central Command spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said yesterday.

"The policy was under review before the lawsuit was filed, so the change was not a direct result of that," Col. Thomas said.

Lt. Col. McSally's lawsuit also challenges rules 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.

Col. Thomas said those policies remain in effect. Central Command put them in place after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Lawyer John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a religious freedom group representing Lt. Col. McSally, said she will not drop the case, although he called the new policy a step in the right direction.

"What it says to us is that it's not been rescinded," Mr. 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.'"

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