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U.S. women soldiers win battle

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Just by bringing commonplace contemporary values to one of the Mideast's most throwback corners, the American presence there has finally, after years of struggle, freed women from an autocratic, oppressive regime that was forcing them against their will into second-class citizenship and into religious practices alien to their own beliefs.

That's right: Hard as it may be to believe, the Pentagon has at last and still grudgingly decided to let its female personnel serving in Saudi Arabia throw off their abayas, the black head-to-toe covering that the Saudis require of their own women and that the U.S. Defense Department demanded of its, too.

Credit the righteous stubbornness of Lt. Col. Martha McSally for compelling the change.

McSally is an Air Force Academy graduate with a master's degree from Harvard. She is an Air Force top gun — a fighter pilot who, on her just-completed 13-month tour in Saudi Arabia, enforced the Iraqi no-fly zone and led the Air Force's regional search-and-rescue operation.

McSally has spent seven years trying to persuade the Pentagon to stop requiring its 1,000 or so female personnel in Saudi Arabia to disappear into abayas when they leave their military bases. Finally figuring her patience was being abused, she filed suit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, charging gender discrimination and a violation of her religious freedom.

Hence, no doubt, the policy change, though the military acts as though, poof, it just appeared spontaneously.

The oddity here is that the Saudis themselves make no such demands on foreigners. Western women working there are expected only to dress conservatively, as befits the Saudi public culture. Men, too, for that matter: no Speedos.

McSally made it plain that she had no problem with dressing conservatively off-base. That's simple courtesy and, anyway, in a country that only a few years ago beheaded a princess just for messin' around, prudence and self-preservation counsel discretion.

It has never been clear why the Pentagon demanded of its own personnel a more stringent deference to Saudi nativism than even the Saudis expected. The military has given differing explanations through the years. Simple bureaucratic perversity seems as good a guess as any.

With the new policy that abayas for military women are no longer mandatory (but are "strongly encouraged" — why?), the Pentagon goes a long way finally toward standing up for its own personnel in an admittedly tricky situation.

A long way but by no means all the way.

Pilot McSally and other U.S. military women — following Saudi law — still can't drive in Saudi Arabia, must sit in the back seat of the car and must have, in effect, a male chaperone.

The Saudis are still trying to get past that troublesome 15th-century hump. At least the U.S. military has finally hit the 20th.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta. E-mail: teepencolumn@coxnews.com.