BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Middle East
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 12:45 GMT
US eases servicewomen's dress code
Saudi women
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive
The United States military has withdrawn its requirement that female staff serving in Saudi Arabia must wear the traditional Muslim body garment, the abaya, when off base.

I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but I can't drive a vehicle

Lieutenant-Colonel Martha McSally
Until now the wearing of the abaya, a long robe, over uniform or civilian clothes had been required to avoid offending Muslim sensitivities. In future, it will be only a strongly recommended item.

The change came after America's highest-ranking female fighter pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Martha McSally, filed a lawsuit saying the requirement to wear the abaya offended her Christian sensitivities and violated her constitutional rights as a woman.

Saudi Arabia depends on the United States for its defence, but has found itself walking a tightrope, with increasing uneasiness among many Saudis over the presence of US troops there.

Changing the rules

"Men and women are still asked to wear conservative clothing outside their bases," said a US Central Command spokesman. "And we are going to encourage women to wear the abaya off base while travelling in public."

Another spokesman said the policy had been under review before the lawsuit was filed, and the change was not a direct result of it.

Lieutenant-Colonel McSally had long complained that although she was allowed to fly fighter jets off her base in Saudi Arabia to patrol the sky over Iraq, she could not drive a car.

US Apache helicopters during the Gulf War
Saudi Arabia is a long-standing ally of the USA

"I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but I can't drive a vehicle," she said on a recent CBS 60 Minutes television show.

"And then I have to sit in the back and at all times I must be escorted by a male... that, when questioned, is supposed to claim me as his wife," she added.

But she finally decided to sue the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, over the Pentagon's strict dress code for women stationed in the country, for alleged gender discrimination because the Pentagon was not asking US male soldiers to dress like Saudi men outside their base.

A memo from US Central Command announcing the new rules also told local US commanders in the region to reverse any policies or regulations that civilian clothing be worn to cover American military uniforms.

The United States has had about 5,000 troops stationed in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War.

See also:

10 Dec 01 | Middle East
Saudi women get identity cards
28 Mar 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Saudi rough justice
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Middle East stories