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American servicewomen are Americans first and foremost



Published: Sun, January 27, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



While the U.S. Defense Department has backed away from its mandate that American female soldiers serving in Saudi Arabia wear the black head-to-toe abaya while they're off base, the women must still follow the Saudis' oppressive rules that forbid women driving or even traveling in a car unless they sit in the back seat. The bravery of Rosa Parks should have settled once and for all the right of Americans not to be forced to the back of the bus. Nor should American women -- most particularly those who are bravely serving this nation overseas -- be forced into hiding to comply with medieval Saudi customs.

Were it not for the American military presence, by now Saudi Arabia might well be part of Iraq. If the Saudis want to treat their own women as second-class -- or no-class -- citizens, fine. But members of the U.S. military are Americans with all the freedoms their citizenship demands.

Particularly since a political goal of the United States is to free Afghan women from the burqa, a garment similar to the abaya, why would this nation tolerate -- let alone encourage -- the 850 American women serving in Saudi Arabia to don the garb of subservience to men and to Islam?

Saudi officials warned Thursday that they would not allow U.S. servicewomen to appear in public without a head-to-toe robe, and they criticized Washington for lifting the requirement that its female military personnel wear the garment.

A member of the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government agency for enforcing Islamic law, said all women must wear the abaya regardless of religion, nationality or profession.

When Lt. Col. Martha McSally -- who is suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. government to protect her rights -- was flying her fighter jet in combat over Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein out of Saudi Arabia, were the vice and virtue police complaining then that a woman shouldn't be in uniform?

The Saudis are quite happy to have their homes protected by American men and women thousands of miles from their own homes -- just so long as those Americans, particularly the females, know their place.

McSally's place as a senior military officer is standing up for the rights of Americans, not acquiescing to the expectations of foreign dictators nor following the customs of a religion not her own. She has waged her battle against the treatment of women for more than six years -- since she first served in Kuwait in 1995 where regulations forced all servicewomen to be covered from head to toe even while jogging in the intense desert heat on the U.S. base.

By putting their sons and daughters in harm's way to aid Saudi Arabia, the American people have shown the Saudis all the courtesy they deserve. It's up to the Saudis to return the favor.




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