Air Force pilot in Saudi Arabia forced to wear local garb
January 7, 2002 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Air Force pilot in Saudi Arabia forced to wear local garb when going off-base. Lt. Col. Martha McSally sued the Secretary of Defense last month over the requirement that female personnel wear the abaya and matching head scarf while outside Prince Sultan Air Force Base. "If it were in our national security to deploy to South Africa under apartheid, would we have found it acceptable or customary to segregate African American soldiers from other American soldiers, and say, 'It's just a cultural thing?' "
posted by Mapes (37 comments total)
Not that I agree or disagree with either side, but it's not a cultural thing, it's a religious thing. Seems like an important difference.
posted by Blake at 9:32 AM on January 7, 2002

How about providing military support to Apartheid South Africa? It sure would be shocking if the US was involved in that. Or, for that matter, supporting the Saudi Regime at all. It seems that cultural traditions should be the least of our concerns.

Also, Blake, I think it is a cultural thing-- Islam does not mandate that women cover themselves in any specific way, it is entirely a cultural application of the concept of women dressing modestly.
posted by cell divide at 9:44 AM on January 7, 2002

Lt. Col. Martha McSally told National Cathedral School students that when a host country's customs conflict with the Constitution, "that is where you draw the line."

Doesn't that newly drawn line follow the US border exactly?

Deliberate misquote:
"This particular infringment of the rights I'd have if I were in the US (which I concede I'm not at present) is fine, but this other one, which involves the deeply held religious beliefs of a greater number of people than live in the US, is just the last straw. A pox on these foreign misogynists who aren't exactly like me."

The constitution has more to say on the freedom of religion than it does on telling other countries how to run their affairs.

"What makes this particularly bizarre," says Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), one of five Republican senators who has pushed the Defense Department to junk the policy, "is that we are waging a war in Afghanistan to remove those abayas, and the very soldiers who are conducting that war have to cover up."

I thought the war was against terrorism, specifically against Al-Qaida and those who offered them shelter? She needs backup for her crappy argument, not eejuts like this.
posted by vbfg at 9:45 AM on January 7, 2002

Gahd. What ever happened to simple respect? Is Martha the sort of asshole who would bring bacon-wrapped scallops to a bar mitzvah? "Oh, it's not my religion, I don't have to do as they do!"

There are lots of people lying nekkid on the French Riveria right now -- tell me that Americans wouldn't be deeply offended if those same people were to stroll along Coney Island topless.

McSally is hanging out as a guest in another country, where custom, courtesy, and good sense dictate that she should make at least minimal efforts to avoid offending the locals.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:53 AM on January 7, 2002

I think it's SPECTACULARLY inappropriate for anyone in the US military to be asked to wear anything other than their uniform when on duty in another country. The US military uniforms are certainly "modest"--they don't show legs, arms, or cleavage. It was the *Taliban* who insisted that women wear headscarves; before that, many Afghan women wore the same kind of clothing we see on women in Pakistan (or Muslim women in India)--long-sleeved pantsuits.

Military personnel have enough to do without having to conform to local interpretations of religion; the US military would never make male personnel in Afghanistan wear beards, for example, or yarmulkes if they were stationed in Israel.

I can certainly see commandants telling servicewomen that it would be inappropriate to wear shorts, tank tops, etc., when off-duty. But that's a different matter.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2002

but it's not a cultural thing, it's a religious thing

It is a cultural thing Blake, or else the women in every Islamic country would dress in the same manner. The Arabian tradition of the veil and all that has more to do with social standing. Slave girls didn't wear the veil, free women did.
posted by jackiemcghee at 10:00 AM on January 7, 2002

Okay people, if I were her, I too would be PISSED. Those kind of coverings and well as the Saudi treatment of women is simply demeaning. Especially if you don't even believe in the religion that enforces it. She could kick the asses of every guy on MetaFilter and probably most men in the nation, but in Saudi Arabia, she is made to be a second class person, and doesn't get the rights she deserves.

It's not like she wants to walk around in a bikini! She said she will "dress modestly" which is all the Koran says women need do anyway. All that other crap is just militant Islamic men loving and enforcing their power over women. And she, as an american and fighter pilot, shouldn't have to put up with it.
posted by aacheson at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2002

Saudi law, which is the governing law off of the military base, dictates what it means to "dress modestly". So, if she wants to leave base, she will abide by the local law. It's the military way, it seems.
posted by dwivian at 10:10 AM on January 7, 2002

Well, ok, I stand corrected, it is largely a cultural thing, but it is based on peoples interpretation of their religion.
Still seems different to me than a cultural thing.
posted by Blake at 10:11 AM on January 7, 2002

Plus, at least in this article, she seems to have had a very good career, followed many other rules, and served well.

It seems hard enough to be in the minority on base, besides being treated drastically different, and having all men on base participate. Riding in the back of the vehicle?
posted by dreamling at 10:13 AM on January 7, 2002

Saudi Law is an ass.
posted by websavvy at 10:19 AM on January 7, 2002

When in Rome...
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:25 AM on January 7, 2002

Aren't we occupying Saudi Arabia (wrongly or rightly) for all intents and purposes? What the hell are they doing telling the occupying force what to do with its troops? They asked us to defend them from Iraq, we did, and then, unfortunately, we have not left. Sounds like the old historical occupying army thing, except this time the country being occupied is dictating terms, and the occupier is acquiescing. How amusing.
posted by insomnyuk at 10:29 AM on January 7, 2002

Um, are we talking about the same Saudis who fund the wahhabist madrassas throughout the Islamic world in which children are taught that it is their religious duty to wage holy war against Americans? Oh yes, we must not offend them, that would be bad.
posted by homunculus at 10:30 AM on January 7, 2002

Maybe the abaya doesn't make the distinctions clear enough. What if an American man were arrested for homosexuality -- would we be willing to respect the "religious differences" that mandate he be stoned to death? Or should Saudi royalty visiting our country be permitted to keep slaves (or at least indentured servants, probably a more accurate description)? Though the elite Saudis are able to move freely in the Western world and they have superhighways and shopping malls, much of the nation remains as culturally backward as Taliban Afghanistan. It's a country with no elections, with internet censorship, with laws prohibiting women from driving (recently slightly relaxed) and Christians from openly displaying the cross. There is little in this nation that seems to share American values: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, diversity, democracy. And by the way, they've been paying protection money to terrorists to keep their attention elsewhere (which turned out to be on us), and 15 of 19 suicide hijackers were Saudis. I think we should be seriously reconsidering exactly what our relationship is with a nation like this.

I thought this was going to be an issue kept alive after the war by liberals like Matt Welch, but these views are spreading even into the Republican ranks; John Lehman (Reagan's Secy. of the Navy) gave basically the same line on McLaughlin's show this week.

The worst of it all is that the only reason we were there was to save the asses of the Saudi monarchy from being steamrolled by Saddam's tanks. And they're acting like we owe them. Some of us have had enough. Why should we protect ungrateful medievalists?

The evidence is in that this view is becoming widely shared by establishment types who previously might have been swayed by the charm of friendly oil allies: the Saudis are paying for a media blitz to "improve" their image. Hey, sheikh boys. While you're filling the car, be sure and arrest a few terrorists. That's a good customer-service attitude, kiddo.

insomnyuk: unless the meaning of "occupying" has changed, we are not "occupying" Saudi Arabia. We have two or three important military bases in one part of the country, but our forces are (as this article indicates) under strict rules once they venture off those bases. An occupying force would be exerting some sort of authority; we have the role of guest. Don't just parrot Osama's propaganda, OK?
posted by dhartung at 10:33 AM on January 7, 2002

She could kick the asses of every guy on MetaFilter and probably most men in the nation

Somebody has been watching G.I Jane.
posted by thirteen at 10:38 AM on January 7, 2002

"When in Rome..."? Try to be culturally sensitive? A lot of you didn't read past the first paragraph, did you....a little further down it says "...the policy specifically forbids male military personnel from wearing traditional Saudi garb."

And she can't drive? Always has to travel with a male? Always has to sit in the back seat?

This just strikes me as another clueless military bureaucratic boondoggle. I know the Saudi bases are important to the US, but the US presence is vital to Saudi leadership.

Wives of military personnel aren't forced to wear it, isn't there the same possibility that they could offend the Saudis? To the type of mentality that tells women to cover up, the argument of soldier vs civilian wouldn't matter at all. A woman is a woman is a possession.

Men aren't to follow local custom, but women have to. Clever. This is just another example of how women in the military are still seen as second class, regardless of how accomplished they are.
posted by Salmonberry at 11:01 AM on January 7, 2002

jackiemcghee, the position of slave girls in the past is next to irrelevant surely? Slave men in the US didn't get the vote, for every other man it was enshrined in the constitution.

As for the position of Islam in other countries, you're right to say it doesn't happen everywhere. That fact doesn't stop it (on its own) from being a religion thing, or at least a local interpretation of the religion. Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism all have their own interpretations of the bible, what it means and to what extent it is the word of God. Since there is no longer a caliphate to interpret what is believed to be the word of God for the whole of the Islamic world then it seems obvious that different groups of people will interpret it in the way they believe God to be speaking. Is that culture or religion? To me it's religion. They are acting in accordance with their own beliefs in relation to their scripture.

If you can state categorically that it's not a religion thing then I'd like to know why. I honestly can't say that it is or isn't.
posted by vbfg at 11:17 AM on January 7, 2002

I realize that i'm bringing it down to a case of semantics, but isn't religion a facet of culture? Sheep is to mammal as religion is to culture (?).
posted by kahboom at 11:33 AM on January 7, 2002

vbfg: I think you took the wrong emphasis on the point I was making. I was only showing the cultural context. As for stating categorically that it is a cultural throwback, all I can say is that I have studied Islam (as a non-Muslim) and spoken with many Imams, all of whom re-inforced the point.

...different groups of people will interpret it in the way they believe God to be speaking. Is that culture or religion? To me it's religion.

I'd be more inclined to say that it is a cultural slant on a religion. As Islam spread during its golden age, the Koran didn't change, yet there are regional differences in the way that the Koran is interpreted. That surely has to be a cultural influence.

For the record, I think McSally is right in her stance.
posted by jackiemcghee at 11:52 AM on January 7, 2002

i think she suffers so that, by how ever little bit, the world is freer for the rest of us.
posted by kliuless at 12:47 PM on January 7, 2002

Actually, the custom ... as practiced by the Saudis ... may be religious or cultural - but a much bigger distinction to make is that it is the US military, not the Saudis, that created and are enforcing that regulation. The article clearly says that other Americans connected with the government, or their wives, have no such regulation imposed upon them (including the State Department, which is generally far more concerned with local custom than the military is).

It certainly is the case that the Saudis are (in my opinion) horrible prehistoric cretins when it comes to their general attitude towards women ... and probably do deserve blame for all sorts of things - but not this. This falls squarely in the lap of the US military.
posted by MidasMulligan at 12:53 PM on January 7, 2002

When I said occupying, I meant providing protection... I was not (God forbid) equivocating what bin Laden has claimed, at least not intentionally. But, in light of this little political brouhaha, when it comes down to it, we are protecting them, and we should set our own rules.
posted by insomnyuk at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2002

im suprised no one is asking what US troops are doing in saudi arabia anyway....??? were'nt most of the highjackers saudi's?? why did'nt we ask the saudi's to cough up all the terrorists and those inciting terrorism on their soil... or we'd bomb the hell out of them???
posted by specialk420 at 1:16 PM on January 7, 2002

American airmen are not allowed offbase in Spain with uniforms on--men or women. In Mexico, priests are not to war their religious garments when in public. And then thee was the Saudi princess now accused of beating or possibily enslaving her maid: do we say it is not done in America or merely say it is a religious or cultural thing a guest employs while visiting our shores?
Jews were not allowed (probably still not) in Saudi Arabia (they seem never to call this fake name their country but rather The Kingdom) no matter what the compnay they worked for. I assume for the military it is Don't ask; don't tell.
posted by Postroad at 2:05 PM on January 7, 2002

Somebody has been watching G.I Jane.

Kicking ass and taking names.....
posted by aacheson at 3:15 PM on January 7, 2002

“tell me that Americans wouldn't be deeply offended if those [the French] were to stroll along Coney Island topless.”

fff, I laughed out loud at this because it's such a subersive comment on the whole issue. Funny in a dramatic irony sort of way.

(Women are allowed by law and culture to be topless in New York.)
posted by raaka at 3:18 PM on January 7, 2002

Awesome first post, Mapes.

And go McSally. I hope she gets this ridiculous situation set to rights.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 3:45 PM on January 7, 2002

Raaka: Cool. Legal up here in Canada, too; or at least in a couple of our provinces. I didn't know New York (?) had changed its laws.

Substitute "Utah" for "Coney Island," ok? :-)

(Tho' I'll bet walking nekkid at Coney Island would still offend a lot of people, no matter what the actual law says...)
posted by five fresh fish at 5:39 PM on January 7, 2002

She drives an ugly down-and-dirty tank [driver] killer (my brackets). That Ms McSally is OK, in pursuit of the military objective, with suspending civil morality on taking the life of another human being, but not on suspending civil dress code defies intuition.

This war will be won - and lost - by more than the superior application of lethal force. There is a propaganda dimension to which the application of force is subordinate. In a war which is intended to affirm the rights of Nations to maintain their own values, she has subordinated pursuit of the National goal to that of her own personal one. We should be grateful that the damage she has caused your government in doing so has at least not been monetary.

"I was pretty naive," she says, laughing again. Quite.
posted by RichLyon at 5:16 AM on January 8, 2002

If she doesn't like what she has to do there, then she shouldn't have taken a job that would make her do things that she was against. Anybody knows that if they go to another country, that country is going to have laws that are different from their home country. If you don't want to abide by the laws where you go, then stay home. I thought our military was there to protect us - not to go out and Americanize the entire world. Her problem is that Saudi law is unconstitutional? WELL DUH!!!!
posted by karaleah at 11:12 AM on January 8, 2002

The problem, karaleah and RichLyon, if you actually read the entire article, is that men in the US forces are forbidden from dressing in Saudi garb.

Only military women there must dress traditionally, not the wives of soldiers. So let's not bother with the whole "be sensitive to the culture" thing, because it's obvious only one group is supposed to do that.

That is clearly discriminatory to female armed forces members and shouldn't be allowed, foreign country or not. It should be her choice to dress how she chooses when not following the uniform codes that all military people follow.
posted by Salmonberry at 11:27 AM on January 8, 2002

Salmonberry. It is no more her choice whether to disregard local sensitivities on dress conventions than it would be for a visiting Arab pilot to disregard your sensitvity and slaughter a Halal goat outside the Officers' Mess at Edwards Airforce Base.

posted by RichLyon at 4:37 AM on January 9, 2002

The US military uniforms are certainly "modest"--they don't show legs, arms, or cleavage.

Unless the skirts of the US military uniform have recently been lengthened to the ankle, and the blouses are all long-sleeved and high-necked, then they do not meet Saudi standards of modesty by any means.

men in the US forces are forbidden from dressing in Saudi garb.

Because the cultural requirements for men are different than they are for women. Men dress in their own manner because the Saudi garb is bound up in Islamic rules, and it is offensive for non-Muslim men to wear their clothing without necessity -- much like it would be inappropriate for a non-Jewish man to wear a yarmulke all day every day because he could.

Only military women there must dress traditionally, not the wives of soldiers. So let's not bother with the whole "be sensitive to the culture" thing, because it's obvious only one group is supposed to do that.

The military cannot impose such orders as manner of dress on non-military personnel. That's why military wives are not forced to wear abaya in public -- no one has that authority. All that can be told them is that they must follow Saudi law and that it'll be a mess if they don't. If the military wives there are smart, however, they do wear abaya off-base, as a matter of safety. They do not need to draw attention to themselves as non-Saudis, non-Muslims and therefore a dangerous and unwelcomed outside influence on Saudi society.
posted by Dreama at 4:57 AM on January 9, 2002

Won't Osama bin Laden be happy if American service women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear burqas!
posted by Carol Anne at 5:13 AM on January 9, 2002

Carol Anne - um - are they? If they are not, what point are you making?
posted by RichLyon at 5:43 AM on January 9, 2002

Update here, thanks to JanetLand.
posted by Mapes at 8:17 AM on January 26, 2002

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