Kelly Sans Culotte


Top Gun McSally Sues U.S.
From the top of the world to the dog house.
By Toby Eglund

Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally

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A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber carrying air-launched cruise missiles in pods under its wings. U.S.A.F.

DECEMBER 10, 2001. Last May, Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally was on top of the world. The decorated, newly promoted Air Force pilot was among 30 national finalists for the prestigious White House Fellowships, the program that elevated a young and obscure Colin Powell to the lofty halls of governmental power.

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

Uncovering Discrimination
McSally wants the policy declared unconstitutional. Forcing women to wear clothing and follow customs mandated by a religion other than their own discriminates against women and violates their First Amendment right to religious freedom, she says in her lawsuit. She also says the regulations undermine her authority as an officer, and force her to send the false message that she believes women should be subservient to men.

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's filing the lawsuit, she says, after six years of quiet efforts to change the Saudi Arabia policy have failed. "I've fought and spoken and been patient and worked within the system for so long to try to effect some change in this policy, so the fact that I would just be truthful I would hope wouldn't hurt me and, if it does, then so be it," she told USA Today in April, when she first went public with the issue. She was alluding to her pending White House Fellowship application.

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?
Get with The GullyMcSally is not facing down the brass alone. The conservative Rutherford Institute is picking up her legal costs and fielding a team of lawyers on her behalf. The Institute is best known for having bankrolled Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against former President Clinton. It says that religious freedom and "freedom from gender discrimination" are two of its main focuses.

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
A win by McSally on the "religious freedom" argument could expand the scope of the social and cultural areas covered by that right. That might explain the keen interest of The Rutherford Institute in the case.

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
The truth is that, in Saudi Arabia, a theo-monarchy with no constitution and Sharia law in full swing, there is no separation between religion, mores, culture. The "abaya" is both religious and cultural, a social phenomenon, a symbol of the prevailing mores and brand of Islam.

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.

From the Web

"Cultural sensitivity" in the U.S. Air Force's "Newcomer's Handbook"
World Factbook: Saudi Arabia
Amnesty International: Saudi Arabia
Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia
The Rutherford Institute

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