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Military Abaya Policy “Transparently Unconstitutional”

The House passed an amendment to the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday prohibiting the Pentagon from requiring or encouraging women military personnel in Saudi Arabia to wear the abaya, a head-to-toe black robe. The amendment also bars the Department of Defense (DOD) from purchasing the garment for US servicewomen. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, female personnel in Saudi Arabia were required to wear the abaya while off base. Last December, the highest-ranking female pilot in the US Air Force, Lieutenant-Colonel Martha McSally, challenged the abaya mandate, and in January, General Tommy Franks downgraded the abaya policy from a requirement to a “strong encouragement.” The change, however, was ineffectual, as many women were still instructed to wear the garment. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) called the DOD policy “transparently unconstitutional.” According to Wilson, an Air Force veteran, “The sad thing is that this bill is needed at all.” Rep. John Hostettler (R-IN), who co-sponsored the amendment, commented, “I am puzzled by the fact that our female military personnel are treated like second-class citizens.” US servicemen in Saudi Arabia are neither required nor “strongly encouraged” to grow beards or wear local garb. In addition, women diplomats on official business in Saudi Arabia are told not to wear the abaya, because they are representing the US. Off duty, these individuals are free to dress as they choose.

Sources:

Associated Press, 5/14/02; Feminist Majority