The House of Representatives is expected to vote this Tuesday on an amendment to the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would prevent US servicewomen from being forced or encouraged to wear the abaya, a restrictive, black head-to-toe robe. Co-sponsored by Representatives John Hostettler (R-IN) and Jim Langevin (D-RI), the amendment highlights the contentious issue of US servicewomen in Saudi Arabia being instructed to wear the abaya over uniforms or civilian clothes.
Last December, the highest-ranking female pilot in the US Air Force, Lieutenant-Colonel Martha McSally, challenged the abaya mandate, set in 1991 following Operation Desert Storm. In January, General Tommy Franks downgraded the abaya policy from a requirement to a “strong encouragement.” Nonetheless, the change remains ineffectual since many local US military commanders still instruct servicewomen to wear the garment.
The Department of Defense asserts that the abaya policy is a force protection measure, implemented because of “host nation sensitivities.” In fact, conditions for other US government employees contradict this claim. For example, 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. The contradiction among these US policies insinuates that US servicewomen hold lesser status than US servicemen.