Guns and Abayas

Posted: Nov 23, 2001 12:00 AM
While you're digesting your turkey with your family, close to a thousand women are serving their country from Saudi Arabia. Figure that they're not thanking their stars that they have to wear an abaya -- a black burqa-like head-to-toe covering and scarf -- when they leave their military bases. In April, Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally went public to protest U.S. military orders that she must wear an abaya when off-base in Saudi Arabia. The brass also forbade McSally -- the first woman in the Air Force to fly a combat mission into enemy territory -- to drive a car; she had to sit in the backseat in Saudi Arabia. She's a pilot who has helped protect the Persian Gulf from aggression -- and her reward for her service is to be treated as a lesser human being. "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," McSally told USA Today. "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." Other servicewomen disagree. Air Force Maj. Lisa Caldwell, for example, told USA Today, that the abaya policy is a way of showing "respect for Islamic law and Arabic customs." And: "I am a guest here and want to blend into the culture." On the one hand, the Defense Department would not allow a host country to baldly discriminate, say, against African American troops stationed abroad. On the other hand, America needs positive relations with its Islamic allies. It doesn't help if U.S. policies undermine their unequal treatment of women. Besides, it's not the clothing to which the likes of the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden object -- it's the freedom. After McSally went public, five Republican U.S. senators -- including Jesse Helms of North Caroline -- asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to review the policy. On Tuesday, White House aides Karen Hughes and Paula Dobriansky held a conference call touting the White House campaign to discredit the Taliban's War Against Women. They discussed the great oppression imposed by the Taliban on Afghan women -- far worse than anything McSally ever experienced -- who were denied the ability to support their children and were prevented from getting needed medical treatment. As long as the United States is pushing for women's rights in Afghanistan, I asked, was the White House reconsidering its Saudi abaya policy? Will female troops in Central Asia have to wear veils off-base? "I think that's a matter of policy for the Defense Department," answered Hughes. Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the Saudi abaya policy was under review before the Sept. 11 attacks. Clarke knew of no similar Pakistan policy. She added that female troops stationed there haven't had time to leave the base. Some hawks might argue that the mission is what counts most in war. Thus, female troops should endure second-class treatment for the greater good. I wonder if they'd say that if male soldiers abroad had to wear 4-inch long beards. Other defenders of the status quo point out that Muslim cultures are more modest, that polite guests have an obligation to, as they say, do as the Romans do. Otherwise, our troops come across as Ugly Americans. Some women in the military would add that the abaya policy saves them from being beaten by the matawa, the Saudi religious police. The thing is, female U.S. State Department workers in Saudi Arabia don't wear the abaya on official calls. Surely the Bush administration can come up with an off-base dress code that, State Department-like, instructs both men and women to dress modestly, cover up from head to toe and wear a hat or scarf. Servicewomen who want to wear an abaya when out-of-uniform would be free to do so. It's reveille. The Bush administration has spent two months pointing at burqas as proof that the Taliban are despots. Now that women in Kabul are free, maybe the Bush Pentagon can do the same for the American women serving in Saudi Arabia.