WASHINGTON, D.C.--In a letter to members of the House Armed Services Committee, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, has urged them not to add language that would weaken a pending bill designed to protect the constitutional rights of servicewomen. If passed without any loopholes, the bill would prohibit the Department of Defense from requiring or formally urging servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear a Muslim abaya. The abaya is a head-to-toe robe worn in certain Muslim cultures that often is perceived as a sign of subordination to men. The Rutherford Institute is urging the committee to preserve the bill's language as approved unanimously by the Senate, without any loophole provisions.
The Rutherford Institute brought the issue into the national spotlight when its attorneys filed suit in December 2001 on behalf of Lt. Col. Martha McSally, a decorated pilot in the U.S. Air Force. The suit, filed against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. Department of Defense, challenged a military policy that required servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the abaya when off base. According to the lawsuit, the policy violated McSally's constitutional rights to equal protection and the freedoms of religion and speech. The Rutherford Institute, working in conjunction with McSally and leaders on Capitol Hill, sought to resolve the issue through judicial and legislative means. The abaya bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith (R.-N.H.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R.-Ariz.), if passed without any loopholes would prohibit members of the Armed Forces and employees of the United States from requiring or encouraging that the abaya be worn or retaliating against women who choose not the wear it. The legislation would also require the Secretary of Defense and those acting in his stead to provide each female member of the Armed Services stationed in Saudi Arabia with information about the abaya prohibition, and it would prohibit the use of federal funds for the procurement of abayas. In his letter to members of the House Armed Services Committee, Whitehead urged them not to add "force protection" language to the bill, as some groups and individuals are demanding. According to Whitehead, reports from Saudi Arabia indicate that requiring American servicewomen to wear the abaya when off base does not protect them and may in fact endanger them.
"'Force protection' is merely the latest in a series of arguments that are a subterfuge for an unconstitutional military dress policy," said Whitehead. "If the government is truly concerned about the safety of American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia, there must be more effective methods of force protection than a discriminatory dress policy."
The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.