The Abaya Controversy

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For seven years, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the Air Force’s top-ranked female fighter pilot, has been battling the military over a policy that required service women stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya when off-base. The abaya is a black head to toe robe similar to the Afghani burqa.

McSally argued that military men were not subject to the same restrictions, nor were state department workers or other foreigners required to dress in accordance with Muslim law. Thus, the policy was not only sexist, but irrational. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finally agreed, after McSally sued him.

A victory for women in the military? You bet!

When I heard the story, I simply assumed that the National Organization for Women and similar groups championed McSally’s cause. I was extremely surprised to find out that they didn’t.

You see, McSally maintained that the military also infringed upon her religious freedom. McSally is an observant Christian. She argued that the abaya, a symbol of Islam, conflicted with her own religious beliefs. She was willing to dress conservatively out of respect for her Saudi hosts, but no one should be forced to wear religious clothing against one’s will.

It was the issue of religious freedom that got the attention of the Rutherford Institute, a libertarian think tank best known for its role in the Paula Jones suit against President Clinton. It’s representing McSally, and even got Republican Senators like Jesse Helms and New Hampshire’s Bob Smith, to lobby on her behalf.

So, as it turns out, libertarians and conservative republicans became her strongest allies, while women’s groups, although publicly supportive, did not join McSally’s lawsuit or embrace her in the ways in which one might expect.


It’s complicated.

For example, both Patricia Ireland and Jesse Helms might agree that the abaya had to go, but what about abortion or gay marriage? On issues like these, arguments based upon religious freedom may conflict with arguments about gender equality. Some say religious freedom is a slippery slope, and might well lead to fewer rights for women. Thus, women’s groups are often reluctant to align themselves with religious conservatives, even if those religious conservatives are women.

Then again, you know what they say about divide and conquer. When women don’t support other women because of religious or political differences, it can feel like betrayal. And it may undermine the progress that has already been made in ensuring that someone like McSally, regardless of gender, can fly combat missions.

It’s a huge political conundrum, and sadly, there aren’t any easy answers.

That said, McSally’s case isn’t nearly as hard as most. Regardless of whether you see the abaya controversy as an issue of gender equality or religious freedom, one thing is clear. Not only has McSally risked her life defending our country, but she has risked her career fighting for what is right. And that should qualify her as a hero in anyone’s book.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

–Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

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