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Archive for Monday, April 23, 2001

A major adjustment

April 23, 2001

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The Saudi Arabian requirements for U.S. military women are archaic and in need of updating.

Martha McSally had more than enough hurdles to clear in becoming the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. Her path to success never was easy. Now holding the rank of major, she was the first woman to fly an Air Force combat aircraft into enemy territory during Operation Desert Storm.

One would think America would be a little more considerate of people such as this when they are called upon for foreign service. But our State Department is falling short.

McSally, long hesitant to speak up, is understandably displeased with how she and other American military women are treated in Saudi Arabia, described as "the male-run oil kingdom" they are risking their lives to protect. In Saudi Arabia, says Maj. McSally, whenever she and other women leave their military installations, their commanders by official order require them to wear a black head scarf and a black neck-to-toe robe to satisfy the Saudis' strict interpretation of Islamic religion. Women also must always sit in the back seats of any cars in which they travel, meaning, of course, they cannot drive on their own. Why should our military people, male or female, be so bound?

McSally understands the customary attire for Muslim women but says: "I'm not a Muslim and I'm not Saudi. I'm a Christian. 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." The policy is not flattering.

It is easy to empathize with the major. Here she is, in fact, doing the Saudis and their Muslim leaders a favor by serving in harm's way on their behalf. The least they could do is to move into the modern world and make some changes, particularly for visitors.

If the tables were turned and Saudi women were serving in military units in the United States, they would not be required to follow some archaic sense of dress and deportment. If there ever were arguments for the separation of church and state, this is among them.

It is unsettling that our government is going along with the Saudis, for whom it already has conducted more than enough rescue missions. The Pentagon sees the dress code as a necessity. Officials say current procedure respects cultural and religious customs, avoids conflicts with the Saudi public and helps the military complete its mission.

When our people are assigned to duty in a nation that needs all the reinforcement it can get against the likes of Saddam Hussein, they should be allowed alterations in an outdated dress code, among many other things.

Beggars such as these should not be allowed to be so choosy.

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