McSally has no questions about the importance of the U.S. mission there. “We’re protecting their interests, as well as our own,” she says to the students.
Then she lays out her arguments to them: The State Department does not require its female employees to wear the abaya. Nor does the Saudi government insist, at least not formally. Wives of military personnel stationed there do not have to wear the garment. Nor was there an abaya rule for our military women when the Iraqis invaded neighboring Kuwait and U.S. troops drove them out. Furthermore, the policy specifically forbids male military personnel from wearing traditional Saudi garb.
McSally has a solution: Women would wear loose-fitting, modest shirts and long skirts that would cover them, in deference to local mores.
She tells the NCS students that the regulations have an insidious way of creeping into the on-base military culture, reintroducing the idea of women as subservient to men to an organization that worked hard to throw off those stereotypes.
The NCS girls ask smart and tough questions. They hunt for compromise. They question her timing. “In this time of heightened hostility, isn’t this a safety issue?” one asks. “I recently heard about force protection.”
McSally asks them to envision the scenario the policy outlines -- an American woman covered head to toe in black, surrounded in downtown Riyadh by studly blond guys in crew cuts and jeans. “We hardly blend in,” she says with a broad smile, and everybody cracks up at the image.
Here in America, another girl ventures, we accept people from other countries and don’t disrespect those peoples’ cultures. “So isn’t it a question of respect, for you to not adopt their dress?” she asks.
“Here’s the difference,” parries McSally. “We let them choose to wear whatever they wish. When you value people, you give them freedom. That is who we are.”
The military she loves has stripped her of that choice, McSally suggests. She is an observant Christian required against her will to represent herself as an adherent of a religion, Islam, which is not her own. Her attorneys, who have been hired by the Rutherford Institute, best known for its role in Paula Jones’s suit against President Clinton, contend the abaya policy violates her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
“If it were in our national security to deploy to South Africa under apartheid, would we have found it acceptable or customary to segregate African American soldiers from other American soldiers, and say, ‘It’s just a cultural thing?’ “ McSally asks. “I don’t think so. I would hope not.