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Central Command Relaxes Abaya Rule in Saudi Arabia

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2002 – U.S. Central Command has relaxed the requirement that female service members wear the Muslim abaya when off-base in civilian clothes.

About 1,000 American service women are affected by the change. The command still "strongly advises" female service members to wear the abaya, a black cloak that Muslim women are required to wear by the Koran.

Central Command officials said the requirement was put in place as a force protection measure. Saudi Arabia is a conservative Islamic country and the home of Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest sites in Islam. The officials said the country adheres to a strict interpretation of Islamic religious law as put down in the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

The abaya in Saudi Arabia is a long black robe that covers the head and body. In other areas of the world, the abaya is a simple headscarf.

Officials said that wearing the abaya allows American women to blend in with the population better and shows American cultural sensitivity. It also helps women avoid the attention of the Saudi "religious police."

Men are also affected by dress rules. Off-base, they are required to wear long-sleeved, collared shirts and slacks. T-shirts and shorts are not allowed. While conducting official business, all personnel are authorized to wear their uniforms.

Other rules remain in place. Saudi law forbids women from driving in the kingdom, and American women are not allowed to drive off-base.

State Department officials said that Islam dictates a total way of life. The Koran prescribes the behavior for individuals and society, codifying law, family relations, business etiquette, dress, food, personal hygiene, and more. Muslims believe in a family-centered way of life, including a protected role for women and clear limits on their participation in public life.

In traditional Islamic societies, Muslims believe open social relations between the sexes result in the breakdown of family life. Contacts between men and women are therefore rigidly controlled.

The issue has received a lot of attention because of a suit brought by Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The A-10 pilot objected to having to wear the abaya off-base. She contended that the rule to wear the traditional Muslim abaya is a violation of her religious rights and gender discrimination.

McSally's attorney, John Whitehead, said he's pleased with CENTCOM's decision, but he will wait to see how it is implemented. "The rule says they 'strongly urge' women to wear the abaya," Whitehead said. "The question is what does 'strongly urge' mean?"

Whitehead said three other policies need to be addressed. McSally also objects to not being able to drive, having to ride only in the rear of vehicles and having to be escorted by men while off-base.

Central Command officials said they are researching those other policy aspects and expect to have some answers in a few days.

 

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