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House unanimously passes Saudi dress-code bill

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House unaminmously passed a bill Tuesday that "prohibits the military from requiring or strongly encouraging servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear abayas" while off duty or traveling off base.

The bill would also prevent the Pentagon from buying abayas -- the traditional head-to-toe garment worn by Muslim women.

The issue gained international attention after a lawsuit was filed by Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally, who argued the policy is discriminatory because servicemen are not also required to observe local Muslim dress customs.

In January, the Pentagon changed the policy from "require" to "strongly encourage."

"Strongly encouraging our female military personnel to wear the abaya sounds like a direct order to me," said Rep. John Hostettler, R-Indiana. "Our servicemen are not required to grow beards or alter their dress when they travel off base."

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-Rhode Island, the bill's author, called the policy "gender discrimination" that treats women soldiers like "second-class citizens."

"American servicewomen should not be ordered to wear Muslim dress," said Rep. Heather WIlson, R-New Mexico, a bill cosponsor. "There is no military justification compelling them to do so."

The bill stops short of an outright ban, however. It preserves a commander's authority to require abayas if they are "essential for the conduct of the military mission."

Comment on Tuesday's House action was not immediately available from the Pentagon.

But earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the policy on a television news show.

"We are guests in certain countries. At our request, they allow us the use of bases or fields," he said. "It is more in our country's interests to be in that country and recognize that we have to live with some of their laws and rules and customs."




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