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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 15:16 GMT
Saudis criticise US dress-code change
Saudi women in traditional Muslim robes, the abaya
Saudi clerics insist all women wear head-to-toe robes
Saudi officials have criticised a US decision to lift its requirement that female staff serving in Saudi Arabia must wear the traditional Muslim body garment, the abaya, when off base.

There must be no exceptions in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets. No one of any nationality is exempt in the eyes of religion

Saudi cleric
They said the decision flouted Islamic law. They said they would not allow US servicewomen to appear in public without the head-to-toe robe.

"Everybody is considered equal under Islam. Whoever doesn't like, let them go home," a member of a Saudi government agency for enforcing Islamic law told the Associated Press news agency.

"There must be no exceptions in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets. No one of any nationality is exempt in the eyes of religion," a local cleric told Reuters news agency.

Saudi officials also said the decision was likely to provoke angry reaction - especially from the religious police, or mutawaeen - if American servicewomen appear without the abaya.

A man driving a car
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive

The decision to withdraw the requirement was taken last week by the Commander of the US Central Command, General Tommy Franks.

Relaxing the rules

Until then, the wearing of the abaya over uniform or civilian clothes had been required to avoid offending Muslim sensitivities.

In future, wearing the abaya will only be strongly recommended.

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.

"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.

Gender case

Lieutenant-Colonel McSally had long complained that although she was allowed to fly fighter jets off-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.

She alleged the rule was a case of 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.

The government in Riyadh 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.

See also:

23 Jan 02 | Middle East
US eases servicewomen's dress code
10 Dec 01 | Middle East
Saudi women get identity cards
28 Mar 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Saudi rough justice
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