Saudis demand military women cover up

Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi officials warned Thursday they would not allow U.S. service women to go around without a head-to-toe robe, and criticized Washington for lifting the requirement that its female troops wear the garment.

A member of the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government agency for enforcing Islamic law, said all women must wear the robe, or abaya in Arabic, irrespective of religion, nationality or profession.

"Everybody is considered equal under Islam. Whoever doesn’t like it, let them go back home," a committee official said on condition of anonymity.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, issued an order last week saying the abaya is no longer required for U.S. service women in Saudi Arabia "but is strongly encouraged." The requirement dates from the 1990-91 Gulf crisis when U.S. forces were first stationed in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi military official on Thursday criticized Franks’ move, saying the United States should have consulted the kingdom beforehand.

The U.S. decision is a violation of Saudi sovereignty and of Islamic law, the official said.

Some commanders of U.S. troops based in Saudi Arabia have ordered women under their command to wear the abaya, while others have left the decision to the women.

Women diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh are encouraged not to wear the abaya when on official business because they are representing the United States, embassy officials say. In their personal time, embassy employees can choose how to dress.

Saudi women appear in public fully veiled, showing only their eyes, hands and feet. Foreign women in the kingdom usually wear abayas at malls, markets and other public places in accordance with Saudi religious custom.

The highest-ranking female pilot in the U.S. Air Force has challenged the abaya rule in a Washington, D.C., court. Lt. Col. Martha McSally argued that the abaya policy was unconstitutional and said it improperly forced American women to conform to others’ customs.

McSally’s lawsuit did not inspire the policy change because it was already under review, Central Command spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said this week.

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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