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Pentagon Drops Veil Requirement for American Servicewomen - 2002-01-23

The Pentagon is dropping a policy that required American servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear the traditional Muslim veil. This, after the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force sued the Pentagon, claiming the policy discriminated against American women.

During Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally's tour of Saudi Arabia, she along with 1,000 or so other American servicewomen based there was required by the Pentagon to wear the traditional Saudi veil over her uniform when travelling off base.

In a strict Muslim country where Americans have repeatedly been the targets of terrorist attacks, it was a policy Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld let the military commander in the region decide - defending it as a prudent safety measure.

"A commander also has the issue of determining what is in the best interests of the force in terms of force protection," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

But the Defense Department is now dropping the dress requirement after Lieutenant Colonel McSally filed suit. Her argument - requiring her to wear clothing of another faith violated her right to religious freedom. Her lawyer is John Whitehead.

"It's only in Saudi Arabia that this rule has ever applied. It doesn't apply in Pakistan, Kuwait or Afghanistan. The thing here is that Martha McSally is a Christian and I think that's one thing that's important here. This is a victory for people of other religions (who) should not be forced by our government to wear religious outfits of another government. Our government is actually financing and paying for these, which I think creates a church/state problem," he said.

In strict Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, the head to toe abaya is a wardrobe requirement for Saudi women. But the Saudi government does not require American women living in the kingdom to wear it, but instead encourages them to dress conservatively. That has led the Pentagon to require its employees to wear the veil even though other Americans in the kingdom were not.

"We don't know why the wives of American servicemen or people in the diplomatic corps don't have to wear it. That is why this policy all along has been irrational. It's an irrational policy and I think that the reason it's changed is that the military has seen that it's irrational," he said.

Under the new Pentagon policy, it will be up to American military women based in Saudi Arabia to decide for themselves whether to wear the traditional headscarf.