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US Senate Votes Against Abayas Regulation - 2002-06-25

The U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly to bar U.S. servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia from being required or encouraged to wear the Muslim-style head-to-toe robes known as abayas. The issue stems from a lawsuit filed last year by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally.

Lieutenant Colonel McSally sued Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the 1991 Gulf War dress code, arguing that the policy on abayas discriminates against women and violates their religious freedom by forcing them to adopt the garb of another faith.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Pentagon amended the policy, saying the wearing of abayas by American women service personnel in Saudi Arabia would not be mandatory, but strongly encouraged.

But lawmakers say that move did not go far enough. Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire is a sponsor of the legislation. "It is about our fundamental values religious freedom based on the First Amendment, and about gender discrimination, because that is what this is," he says. "It is gender discrimination. It is a violation of the First Amendment and it goes against every rule that we have in the military about showing off our uniform and being proud to wear them."

The legislation is contained in an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill, now being debated in the Senate. The House has passed a similar measure.