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House Approves Measure To Ban Military Use of the Abaya

On May 14, the House approved, by voice vote, a bill (H.R. 4714) that would bar American military commanders from requiring U.S. servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the traditional abaya over their uniform or civilian clothes. The bill also would prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing abayas for regular use. Additionally, H.R. 4714 includes language that would allow the commander of the U.S. Central Command to require the abaya to be worn only if it were essential to the conduct of a military operation. H.R. 4714 was considered under suspension of the rules, which limits debate, bars amendments and requires a two-thirds vote for passage.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and John Hostettler (R-IN), was offered as an amendment to the FY2003 defense authorization bill (H.R. 4546) during the House Armed Services Committee mark up on May 1, but was subsequently withdrawn. The bill’s sponsors are hoping it will be included in the final version of H.R. 4546.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) argued that although the Department of Defense’s (DoD) policy change to “ ‘strongly encourage’ wearing the abaya, was clever as a public relations move…, it is inappropriate for the DoD to force service members to wear religious clothing… and it is likewise inappropriate to strongly encourage that they do so.”

Agreeing with Rep. Wilson, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said, “By discriminating against women in the military, we undermine the authority of officers stationed in Saudi Arabia and diminish morale among servicewomen.”

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