Taking off the abaya

Hours after a victory in her fight to free servicewomen in Saudi Arabia from wearing head-to-foot Muslim robes off base, Lt. Col. Martha McSally talks about her battles as a jet pilot and a woman.

Published May 16, 2002 7:23PM (EDT)

Lt. Col. Martha McSally has done well by the military. Through hard work and model comportment, the 5-foot-3 woman has muscled her way up the ranks to become the top female fighter pilot in the Air Force. During the last decade, she's flown combat missions in the no-fly zone over Iraq, instructed pilots deployed to Kosovo and directed search-and-rescue missions inside Afghanistan.

But the vehicle of McSally's success also has been the source of her oppression. In an environment dedicated to equality, she says, principles have been sacrificed for appearances.

For seven years, McSally has been fighting military rules that formerly required and now "strongly encourage" women stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear a head-to-foot Muslim robe called an abaya, to ride in the back seats of vehicles and to be accompanied by men when off base.

McSally, who was stationed in the Muslim kingdom in 2000 and 2001, argues that the rules are unconstitutional because they improperly force women to conform to another country's religious and social customs. Last year, after failing to secure change within the system, she filed suit in U.S. District Court to force the Department of Defense to eliminate the policies.

The department says it created the regulations to avoid offending conservative Saudi leaders and to protect U.S. troops from terrorist attacks. But in January, the DOD agreed to alter the rules, changing the requirement to wear the abaya and ride in the back seat of cars to a policy in which the practices are "strongly advised." The department still prevents women in Saudi Arabia from driving off base alone.

The changes are sufficient, argues the DOD, to merit dismissal of McSally's suit. But McSally has not been placated by the move. Instead, she has pushed forward with her lawsuit, arguing that when a commanding officer "strongly advises" a young enlisted women to do something, it is essentially an order.

Recently, with the suit still pending, McSally brought her case to Washington, crafting with her home state congressman, Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a bill that would prohibit the military from requiring or strongly encouraging servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear abayas.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed the bill, and McSally was there to watch. She spoke about her victory in an interview following the vote.

Today was a big day for you. How does it feel to win?

It was pretty overwhelming actually to be sitting up in the gallery of the United States House of Representatives and be listening to representatives of Congress speak so strongly on this issue and then to have this legislation pass after seven long years of being told that I'm the only one who cares about this issue, that I need to get over it.

It's a very historic moment for this nation, but also for me personally. I was a legislative fellow, and I also know that many freestanding bills do not make it into law. So the battle is won, but not the war. We need to push the Senate and make sure that when this legislation gets into conference, the DOD doesn't bully any changes to the bill's language.

What do you think is the motivation behind the DOD policy?

I've done a tremendous amount of research on this over the years. The policy came about after Desert Storm. I was told initially that it was a State Department policy and that it was way above my pay grade. But I discovered that it was created by a local commander in Saudi Arabia. I don't know the reason.

The reason I was given at the time was host nation sensitivity. But Saudis aren't officially asking for it. My belief is that in the bureaucratic way, it was handed down from one commander to the next and that it took on a life of its own. I don't think our DOD was going out to oppress women. But the problem is that the people who came up with the policy are not women. And they didn't seem to think it was a big deal.

I've heard all sorts of defenses for the policy recently that are emotionally palatable at the moment. People say the policy provides protection from terrorist attack or safety for our troops. At face value, those things sound very noble. But in reality they're irrational defenses and have only recently been presented.

Although there is no official Saudi policy requiring women to wear abayas, do you think it's likely that those expectations are so ingrained in Saudi culture that American servicewomen will be at risk if they don't wear them off the base?

Well, this nation is an ally of ours. This is not a combat zone. And this ally has said that the abaya is not a requirement. So I think that we could get assurances from our ally government that our people will not be assaulted in their streets, and that if they are, those who commit the assaults will be punished. Secondly, there's been no evidence to say that wearing the abaya is more safe than not wearing it.

I've talked to women who serve in the embassy and don't wear an abaya who have never been harassed because they're clearly Westerners. Whereas, almost every single servicewoman I know who has worn an abaya has been harassed.

It's like if you were to put on a military uniform and come on a base. I'm going to correct the way you wear that thing. As soon as you put that thing on, you're inviting correction within the jurisdiction of the religious beliefs.

Are there any cultural circumstances in which you'd embrace an Arab tradition?

I've heard that when you go into a mosque, some of them ask you to wear the abaya. Personally, I'm not Muslim, and I would not choose to do that. The key is whether it's your choice or not. If you want to put on an abaya in order to get a tour of a mosque, God bless you, feel free. But to be forced to wear it to do your duty is not right.

Is what's going on here in Congress likely to affect your lawsuit?

Well, if this law passes, some of the issues raised in the lawsuit will no longer need to be approached. I met with some of my attorneys today. And we're definitely excited about the legislation. It's got to run its course. And we need to continue to fight the policy in parallel.

We made attempts to settle the lawsuit, but they were met with tremendous arrogance. Last Friday, we actually filed an amended complaint because of some of the statements they made in oral argument. We had, for instance, talked about the retaliation that has happened to me. I had tried to play that down. But in the oral arguments, when the other side started to question whether this really happened or whether we're bluffing, we had no choice but to file an amended complaint claiming that the retaliation was real and support the statement with details.

Is there anything you can tell me about the retaliation you have experienced?

The real obvious one was my supervisor refusing to recommend me for squadron command, which is a clear flag for a lieutenant colonel promoted four years early that I failed in some way. Prior to that, the other subtle retaliation was that I was continuously undermined and berated for my disloyalty and poor leadership. You name it, I've heard it all. In America, if things are rough at work, you can go home and escape. In Saudi Arabia, there was no escape.

Do you think your recent transfer from Saudi Arabia to Arizona to work as a flight commander for an air operation center was part of a retaliation?

Actually, it was my choice to go to that job. But it was based on the environment I had going on at the time.

I was a national finalist for the White House fellowship. I made the final round of 30 people. They pick 11 to 19. In June, in the middle of all this, I was about to fly to my interview. I was told that I would need to make another three-year commitment to the Air Force after the fellowship.

With everything going on around me, I felt like I had no future in the Air Force. So I withdrew from the fellowship finals. I had always dreamed of doing that fellowship. My decision was an indication of what I was experiencing at the time. At that point, I had two years left of my commitment to the Air Force. If I accepted a flying job, I'd be committed for at least three more years. I have a home and close friends in Tucson, Ariz. Instead, I asked to be sent there for a non-flying job. I said, "Please send me to the job in Arizona, so I can at least recover."

You flew as a fighter pilot in the combat zone over Iraq. What was that like as a woman?

I was immediately deployed to Kuwait to fly over Iraq once I finished my fighter pilot training in 1994. The military changed the policy in 1993 to allow women to be fighter pilots. They identified seven of us who had already passed training.

I very much remember the first day I looked down outside my canopy and saw the berm that divides Iraq and Kuwait. I was the most inexperienced person in our squadron. I said a little prayer and hoped I had paid attention in class. I then had over 100 hours of flying time over Iraq during the next several years.

What did you do in Saudi Arabia?

I was responsible for combat search and rescues for initially Iraq and then Afghanistan. After Sept. 11, we had to figure out how to survive in a whole new country with land mines and snow-covered mountains. To get out to every air base and every ship to make sure that all the air crew understood how they were going to survive out there -- that was our first challenge. And then we actually kicked off our operation. The tally right now is that we've rescued over 250 Americans from Afghanistan. I wasn't personally there for all of those. But I was there for several months.

How would you characterize your experience in the military as a woman, excluding the abaya issue?

We've come a long way, but we still have a ways to go. The military is still male-dominated. So you're going to have to deal with some attitude problems from time to time, like whether women deserve to serve their country or whether they're competent to be fighter pilots. So I've seen it and could write a book on it. Pretty much every time I've gone into a new unit or a new place, I've had to change people's minds one at a time by my competence and professionalism.

Are you planning on writing a book?

I've thought about it. So many friends have said, "You're keeping a journal of this aren't you?" I haven't had the time. I've actually been asked for the movie rights on this whole issue. So there's supposedly a script being written right now. And I've had some informal offers on book things, but right now, it's just not a priority for me.

If not a book, what do you plan to do when your duty is up a year and a half from now?

Well, I wouldn't expect a book to be my livelihood. It would just be to educate people. I think that if I get out of military service, I will stay in public service for sure. I've always been fascinated with public policy. So maybe some sort of public policy job. Or ministry. I've always wanted to be involved in ministry. You don't have to be a pastor to be involved in ministry. There are many kinds of ministry -- you can go feed the people in Afghanistan. I don't what my own ministry would look like. And I'm kind of open.

By Megan Twohey

Megan Twohey is a writer in Washington. She was formerly a staff writer for the National Journal and the Moscow Times.

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