Redressing a Grievance
by Michael E. Naparstek
A year ago America’s highest-ranking woman fighter pilot took to the pages
of USA Today to protest the Air Force’s regulations for female
personnel venturing off base in Saudi Arabia.
Maj. Martha McSally told reporter Edward T. Pound that in Saudi Arabia
she "is treated like a Muslim piece of property." The black
neck-to-toe robe called an abaya that she must wear "is a customary
Muslim outfit for women, but I’m not Muslim and I’m not Saudi. I am a
Christian." Nor did she appreciate having to ride in the back of a car
or be escorted by men.
Pound quoted opposing views, not only from McSalley’s male superiors
but also from another female officer, Maj. Lisa Caldwell, who defended the
regulations as allowing military women to "show respect for Islamic law
and Arabic customs."
Pound’s article drew only a modicum of attention from other news media.
It was sufficient, however, to gain the backing of the Rutherford
Foundation, the conservative legal outfit famous for representing Paula
Jones in her case against President Clinton.
On June 29 the San Diego Union-Leader reported that Rutherford
president John Whitehead had written to President Bush and Secretary
Rumsfeld calling the military policy an "unconstitutional and
discriminatory violation of the equal protection and free exercise of
religion rights of military women in Saudi Arabia." Whitehead said his
concern had been "spurred by the plight" of McSally, for whom the
policy was "not only discriminatory against women but also conflicted
with her Christian beliefs."
From the time the story broke until the end of October, Lexis-Nexis shows
14 articles on McSally’s protest in major newspapers and 13 television
news segments. From November through mid-March, the numbers were 64 and 122
respectively. November was the month the Bush administration discovered that
the easiest way to sell the war in Afghanistan was as a means to lift the
Taliban’s oppression of Afghan women.
So McSally’s cause sprang to life. On December 3 the lieutenant colonel
(as she now was) filed a civil rights case against Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld on the grounds of religious and gender discrimination.
Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim
Relations at Hartford Seminary, harked back to McSally’s original comments
in a December 15 op-ed in the Hartford Courant. "What does it
mean to be a "Muslim piece of property?" Mattson asked. "McSally
is showing her hatred not only for Saudi culture, but also for all
Muslims." As far as Mattson was concerned, "there is an easy
solution to McSally’s problems in Saudi Arabia—get out of there!"
Justin Raimondo, editorial director of the website AntiWar.com, contended
that McSally "combines the two absolute worst aspects of American
political culture—rampant political correctness and foreign policy
triumphalism—in one outrageous package."
But these were voices crying in the wilderness.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) declared, "[W]e are waging
a war in Afghanistan to remove those abayas, and the very soldiers who are
conducting the war have to cover up." In a letter to Rumsfeld, Rep.
Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) informed the secretary of defense, "It is
unconscionable that our own U.S. government should uphold this
institutionalized disrespect of women by requiring that Americans conform to
On January 20, McSally was the subject of an enthusiastic interview on
CBS’s "60 Minutes" by Lesley Stahl. Being forced to wear the
abaya, McSally said, "to me is defying Christ." The policy was an
example of "where we separate our men from our women and we demean and
humiliate just them."
Two days after the interview aired, the Pentagon made a partial
about-face, making the abaya rule, as the Washington Post put it,
"not mandatory but strongly encouraged." "The mountain has
moved," Whitehead told the Post, "but I don’t know how
On January 30, McSally told Terry Gross of National Public Radio’s
"Fresh Air," "I’m a fighter pilot and we tend to have an
in-your-face, you know, type-A personality that, you know, raises issues and
confronts them when they’re nonsensical." McSally was "entirely
correct," said former Navy officer G.E. Mittendorf in a February 1
op-ed in the Washington Post. "We need more like her."
On February 28, the government moved to have the case dismissed. On March
1, McSally and Whitehead appeared on NBC’s "Today Show," where
McSally continued to attack any and all discriminatory policies towards
military women in Saudi Arabia. She needed, she said, to "draw the line
when those customs devalue people, and they treat them like property, and
they—they cut good order and discipline in the military, and esprit de
Referring to the government’s motion to dismiss, Katie Couric asked,
"Are you going to persevere and continue?" The motion, said
Whitehead, was "based on some cosmetic changes that have to do with
semantics more than anything."
On March 2, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had
"rescinded policies requiring women in the military to sit in the back
seats of cars and be escorted by men when outside their bases in Saudi
The mountain, it seems, had come to McSally.