- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Some U.S. military commanders in Saudi Arabia still instruct servicewomen to wear head-to-toe robes when off base, despite a top general's order ending the requirement, officers said yesterday.
Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, issued an order last week that the abaya is no longer required for U.S. servicewomen "but is strongly encouraged." The abaya rule dates from the 1991 Persian Gulf war when U.S. forces were first stationed in Saudi Arabia.
The highest-ranking female pilot in the Air Force had challenged the rule in a U.S. court and plans to continue the lawsuit because the new order doesn't go far enough, her attorney said.
Maj. John Brown, an Army spokesman in Saudi Arabia, said Gen. Franks' order means the clothing rule is no longer set down by the Central Command, but leaves the decision to local commanders.
Maj. Brown said some Saudi-based commanders have told their servicewomen to continue wearing the abaya when off base. Others "asked their soldiers to carefully evaluate the situation and use discretion, caution and consider force protection" in deciding whether to wear the abaya, he said.
Maj. Brown declined to permit U.S. servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to be interviewed on the subject and referred requests to the Central Command headquarters in Florida.
A female officer in Saudi Arabia, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that some commanders ordered women to continue to wear the Muslim covering. She said she prefers wearing the abaya when off base to respect local customs and to avoid standing out or being harassed.
Saudi women appear in public fully veiled, showing only their eyes, hands and feet. Foreign women living in the kingdom usually wear abayas at malls, markets and other public places in accordance with the Saudi religious custom. Other foreign women carry a scarf to cover the head if told to do so by religious police.
Female employees of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh are encouraged not to wear the abaya when on official business because they represent the United States and its customs, embassy officials say. On their personal time, embassy employees can choose how to dress in public.
Lt. Col. Martha McSally, who filed her lawsuit in Washington, called the abaya policy unconstitutional and said it improperly forces American women to conform to others' religious and social customs.
Col. McSally's lawsuit did not inspire the policy change because it was already under review, Central Command spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said Tuesday.
Col. McSally's lawsuit also challenges U.S. policies requiring servicewomen to be accompanied by a man when leaving their base and to ride in the back seat of a car. Women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Col. Thomas said those policies remain in effect.
John Whitehead, a lawyer with the Rutherford Institute, a religious freedom group representing Col. McSally, said the new policy is a step in the right direction but doesn't go far enough.
"What it says to us is that it's not been rescinded," Mr. Whitehead said.

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