Out of Uniform: Flier Shuns Abaya

Air Force officer fights rule requiring her to wear Muslim covering.
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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 ...

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