Top Gun McSally Sues U.S.
McSally, 35, had a stellar record. She was the first woman in U.S. military history to fly a fighter jet in combat in 1995 and 1996 she flew 100 hours over southern Iraq enforcing the no-fly zone. She is the Air Force's highest-ranking female fighter pilot, and one of the first seven women that managed to enter this ultimate male preserve (there are now 39 female fighter pilots).
Seven months later, McSally's military career may be over. On December 3, she sued her boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. government, for forcing American servicewomen in Saudi Arabia, when off the base, to ride in the back seat of cars and wear the "abaya," a traditional, black, head-to-toe robe, and for forbidding them from leaving the base unless accompanied by a man. Servicewomen who violate these regulations can be court-martialed. About 850 of the 5,000 U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia are women
Servicewomen are the only U.S. federal employees in Saudi Arabia subject to such restrictions. The Pentagon defends the policy saying it protects them from harassment by the Saudi religious police or even from terrorist attacks.
McSally says it's the U.S. military, not the Saudi Arabian government, that insists on them. Saudi Arabia only requires foreigners, both men and women, "to dress conservatively" in public. For women, this means wearing loose fitting dresses with a high neckline draped well below the knees, and avoiding trousers, says the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
McSally has opposed the restrictions since they were imposed in 1995, long before they affected her personally (she was transferred to Saudi Arabia only last November). In Kuwait, where she was stationed earlier, she had gotten a regulation changed that forced all servicewomen to jog or exercise in the suffocating desert heat with their bodies covered from head to toe, even inside the base.
Quiet Efforts Failed
She told The Providence (R.I.) Journal in May that after talking to her mother and some thoughtful praying, she decided she had to speak out even if it might affect her chances for the White House Fellowship. "I think you come to times in your life when you have to make a tough decision: whether to stand up for your convictions and seize the opportunity to speak out with respect or cover yourself."
A few days later, she made the finalists list. In the end, however, she was not chosen to spend a profitable year in the corridors of power. The plum assignment to represent the Air Force in this year's class went to then Major Bruce McClintock, one of two other Air Force finalists.
It's anyone's guess if McSally's quintessentially American pursuit of justice hurt her chances. Washington is a company town and, as such, it does not take kindly to principled people. Where Secretary Powell, the epitome of the cautious, corporate team player, famously flourished, McSally, with her old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart-like honesty, may have floundered even had she made it.
Fishing In Troubled Waters?
If the case goes to trial and McSally wins on a gender discrimination argument, she would score big points for women's equality. It would also be a victory for those who want to curb Washington's selective fudging of constitutional rights on the altar of foreign realpolitik if the government loses a defense based on the "cultural sensitivity" to the host country argument now being peddled by the Pentagon.
Such ruling might also shed some light on that murky, much abused concept, "cultural sensitivity." Originally a well-intentioned semantic construct of the American "left" to curb the "right's" former blindness to diversity, the idea has now been debased by both sides as a justification for inaction. The sensitive, condescending left can ignore that "communities of color" are made up of individuals. The newly sensitive right can be content to parade a few exceptionally gifted individuals who are not white.
Troubling Implications For Queers
One of the most important tasks in the agenda of the religious right is, precisely, the expansion of "freedom of religion." In fact, the religious right's strategy against gay people, since the 1980's, has hinged on variations on the theme that forcing landlords, employers, religious institutions (including, shamefully, hospitals), and others to hire, serve, or otherwise treat queers with equality is an infringement on their religious rights.
The government will probably maintain in court that forcing women to wear the "abaya," and forbidding them from driving cars or going out without male escorts, has nothing to do with religion, and all with the quaint Saudi mores and culture. In another twist of the good Islam mantra we've been hearing for the past few months, the government will speciously try to prove its contention that this is about culture, not religion, by showing how women in other Muslim countries are less restricted than in Saudi Arabia.
Church and State
Saudi Arabia is a case study of a society where religion has expanded to cover everything, leaving nothing outside of it. Had Saudi Arabia enjoyed the separation of church and state the United States still enjoys one that The Rutherford Institute might not mind doing away with McSally's plight would have never happened.
It is an irony that McSally's brave quest for justice against the ugly consequences of religious totalitarianism, and its corollary religion used as a subservient tool of political power could end up by making the United States look not less, but more like Saudi Arabia.