Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2002 /2 Shevat, 5762
Leonard Pitts, Jr.
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT has proved distressingly easy to ignore Martha McSally.
I mean, it's been nine months since she began speaking out and if there's been any hue and cry in response to her complaints, I must have missed it.
So last month, McSally, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, upped the ante with a move as bold as it is suicidal: She filed suit against the secretary of defense. The suit seeks not money, but change.
Specifically, McSally is trying to force the repeal of a policy that requires American personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia to conform to that nation's ultra-conservative customs regarding women. Meaning that when she was stationed in Saudi Arabia and left the base, McSally had to be accompanied by a man. She wasn't allowed to drive and could ride only in the backseat. And she was required to cover herself in an abaya, a long gown similar to the Afghan burqa.
McSally, you should know, is a highly regarded fighter pilot. She's logged more than 100 hours in the cockpit of her A-10 Warthog, directed search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan, patrolled the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq. She's a champion triathlete and holds a master's degree from Harvard. She is, in short, a person of substance.
But she's not allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. government says this is to avoid offending the patriarchal Saudi regime and also to safeguard American servicewomen from terrorist attacks. McSally doesn't see it that way. She regards the policy as unconstitutional because it discriminates against women and as an infringement upon her freedom of religion because it forces her, as a Christian, to wear what amounts to the uniform of another faith.
Yet, after making this argument for the better part of a year, McSally has barely registered in the court of public opinion. I suspect many of those who have heard her complaint have found it easy to rationalize away. They say it's a regrettable policy, yes, but she should put up with it for the greater good. Or they haul out the adage about how to behave when in Rome.
But I wonder if we'd be so sanguine if some apartheid regime were humiliating certain of our soldiers because they were black. I wonder, in other words, if it's not easier for us to rationalize McSally's concerns away - if not ignore them altogether - because they concern "only" gender.
It's not uncommon to be asked to observe the customs of a land one is visiting. Alcohol, for example, is strictly forbidden for all American personnel serving in Saudi Arabia. I'm sure most of them accept the necessity of compliance, albeit reluctantly. As a diverse people, Americans are taught to respect cultural prerogatives, the right of other societies to embrace values different from our own.
But here's the thing: It's easier for us to accept restrictions when they are shouldered equally. Only women shoulder the restrictions that have Martha McSally riled. So in respecting the Saudi's fundamental values, we violate one of our own: equality.
I don't mean to demonize the military. There is legitimate reason to fear that a casually dressed American servicewoman might become a target of violence in Saudi Arabia. But McSally contends that there are circumstances - service personnel traveling in a large group, for example - when that risk is virtually nonexistent. She has said she'd accept a compromise allowing servicewomen to cover themselves head to toe in mainstream American wear, as opposed to the abaya.
Which sounds reasonable to me.
Yes, we should avoid offending one of our few friends in this volatile, strategically important region. Yes, it's something of a concession for them to even allow infidel Americans - much less American military WOMEN - to base themselves in a nation that is home to Mecca. Yes, we are guests, there to defend the oil.
We're also there to defend the Saudis. That ought to count for something. Ought to entitle us to require a more equitable compromise that serves the purpose without undermining who we are.
It doesn't trouble me that we change some of our behaviors to avoid affronting nations with which we do business. It doesn't trouble me that we respect their values.
But is it too much to ask that they respect some of
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