Following a lawsuit filed by Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the U.S. military has changed its policy requiring female servicemembers in Saudia Arabia to wear the abaya, a heavy black head-to-toe robe, when traveling off base. The military contends that the policy was under review before McSally filed suit against the Department of Defense (DOD) and that the change was not influenced by the legal challenge to the DOD’s discriminatory policies for military women serving in Saudi Arabia. While the U.S. will not require the abaya, an email sent by Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, said that wearing the restrictive garment was “strongly encouraged.” The Saudi government, however, has neither indicated that the abaya is government policy for American servicemembers nor requested that American women wear it.
The change in U.S. policy also does not adequately address sex discrimination among troops in Saudi Arabia, as it does not mention the issue of female drivers or freedom of movement, two issues in McSally’s suit. Currently, the nearly 1,000 female servicemembers in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, ride in the front seat of vehicles, or leave the base without male accompaniment. As a result, McSally is refusing to drop her suit.
McSally, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and Harvard University, was the first woman in history to fly a fighter jet in combat for the United States during the Desert Storm Operation in the 1990s. McSally was previously stationed in Saudi Arabia where she directed search and rescue operations.