When Lt. Col. Martha McSally learned that she would have to wear the traditional Muslim abaya when off base at her new assignment in Saudi Arabia, the tenacious fighter pilot initially refused.

"As a follower of Christ, to have to wear the clothing of another religion … was tremendously offensive," McSally told Christianity Today.

Commanders required the 1,000 female soldiers based in Saudi Arabia to wear the long, black abaya and matching headscarf when off base. But after a drawn-out battle with McSally, the military's highest-ranking female fighter pilot at age 35, the U.S. Central Command in January announced it was dropping the policy. While no longer mandatory, the Muslim clothing is "strongly encouraged."

In December, McSally sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in United States District Court over the policy. The suit claims the policy violates her constitutional rights to religious freedom and freedom of speech, and discriminates based on McSally's sex. It also challenges regulations requiring servicewomen to ride in the back seat of a vehicle and to be escorted by a man when traveling off base. These latter restrictions remain in effect.

Saudi Arabia is the only country where the U.S. military has required female personnel to wear the abaya. The policy did not apply to female State Department employees or to military wives.

The suit is "moving aggressively forward" despite the policy change, says John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which represents McSally.

"They haven't addressed the gender discrimination issues," Whitehead says, adding that the policy change may not be substantial. "We don't know what 'strongly encouraged' means. We're afraid it could be coercive."

A Defense Department spokesman says that while the change means Central Command no longer enforces the abaya rule, local commanders may still require it. Some have told servicewomen to continue wearing the abaya. Military officials say the policy was to protect servicewomen from the wrath of Saudi religious police for violating the Muslim dress code. While foreign men can get away with Western dress, they argue, cultural mores do not allow the same for women.

"[Men are] not going to get beaten with a stick for walking down the road, or stoned for not covering their heads," says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Joe Rogan. Women who seek to serve in this environment should wear the abaya, he says.

A Long Battle

An experienced pilot, McSally has logged 100 combat hours over Iraq in A-10 Warthogs. She has directed recent combat search and rescue missions over Afghanistan. Long before her deployment to Saudi Arabia, McSally had been quietly working to change the abaya policy.

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In 1995, as the first woman to fly a combat sortie in a fighter plane, McSally met with Defense Secretary William Perry and expressed her concerns. Before the meeting, a friend encouraged her to read the story of Esther. "I read it, and God really spoke to me," says McSally. Particularly striking was Esther 4:14 (ESV): "And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" "This totally convicted me that I had to bring it up," says McSally. She did, but no changes came from the encounter.

McSally learned in November 2000 that she was being deployed to Saudi Arabia.

After being threatened with a court-martial if she did not comply, McSally agreed to don the abaya and planned to challenge the policy after she arrived. When she got off the plane at the Prince Sultan Air Force Base, McSally put on the abaya and matching scarf and sat in the back seat of an SUV with lower-ranking men.

"At that point, I realized that not only was the policy wrong, it was stupid," McSally says. McSally wore the abaya six times while traveling off base on military business. She did not travel off base for leisure for 13 months.

While on base, McSally found strength through the support and prayer of fellow Christians on the worship team, which she led.

A Pilot's Walk

McSally was raised in an observant Catholic family. Her father died suddenly from a stroke when she was 12. "His death very much rocked my world," she says. "I was very confused in my grief."

McSally plunged headlong into a tumultuous adolescence, determined to "be the best of the best" in honor of her father.

After graduating as valedictorian of her high school, McSally headed for the Air Force Academy, where she was miserable. "Something was missing," she says. McSally began attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. During her sophomore year, she gave her life to God at the Weekend of Light, an annual evangelical outreach event put on by the Air Force Academy chapel and local parachurch organizations.

"That weekend I realized God was clearly speaking to my heart, inviting me to have a personal relationship with him," McSally says. "It was the most awesome moment of my life."

McSally has worshiped within the nondenominational Protestant chapel community at various bases. "It's been a real process of God changing me and softening me," she says.

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Yet McSally still has the grit, toughness, and daring one would expect in a top pilot. These qualities have served her well. While McSally patrolled the no-fly zone over Iraq, her plane was briefly locked on by Iraqi surface-to-air missile target-tracking radar, forcing her to take evasive action.

McSally was one of the first seven women to train as a fighter pilot. A champion triathlete, she was promoted to lieutenant colonel four years before her peers. "Anything Martha does is at a level that is beyond normal," says Lea Tims, a close friend.

Tims met McSally at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, where Tims's husband served as chaplain.

McSally would round up "whole groups of people who had never been to chapel before" and pay their way to retreats, Tims says. "She was really tenaciously pursuing people's souls."

McSally says that she has been reprimanded and accused of disloyalty and being a bad example. In her formal performance report, her immediate supervisor in Saudi Arabia purposefully left out a recommendation for command—a serious blow.

But McSally remains optimistic.

"I am very grateful that if I go back to Saudi today, I will no longer be forced to wear clothing of a faith I do not follow."

Related Elsewhere

Previous news coverage of McSally's suit includes:

McSally believes career has been harmedArmy Times (Feb. 6, 2002)
Saudi Dress Code for Female Troops RevisedThe Washington Post (Jan. 23, 2002)
Military eases policy on Muslim garbUSA Today (Jan. 23, 2002)
US eases servicewomen's dress code — BBC (Jan. 23, 2002)
U.S. Military Changes Female Policy in Saudi Arabia — Reuters (Jan. 23, 2002)
CBS "60 minutes" Profiles Rutherford Institute Case Involving Decorated Female Fighter Pilot Forced to Wear Muslim Garb — The Rutherford Institute (Jan. 22, 2002)
The Air Force Flier In the OintmentThe Washington Post (Jan. 6, 2002)

In 1998, Christianity Today profiled John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute.

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