Resentful U.S. servicewomen can't budge Saudi social customs

September 22, 1990|By V. Alton Barker | V. Alton Barker,Special to The Sun

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- They came forewarned. But after more than a month of conforming to dress and behavior codes closer to Victorian England than 20th-century America, U.S. servicewomen deployed in this Moslem kingdom are starting to chafe.

"We came here expecting that we weren't going to be able to take our overshirts off," said Army Pfc. Jessica Abbott of Vacaville, Calif.But despite the preparation, she said, "sometimes it gets really hard on the women."

"I hate it, what the women have to go through here," said Pvt. Bessie Miller, a National Guardswoman from Montgomery, Ala. "We are definitely second class."

Air Force Sgt. Rebecca Olson of Storm Lake, Iowa, supplies parts for F-15 fighter jets. After more than a month of daily contact with Saudi soldiers, she said, she saw no sign that women were more than grudgingly accepted.

"They come and bring parts that I've ordered through them," she said. "They don't talk to me directly -- they kind of talk around me. They just work with me because they have to.

"I know their culture is different, but it's still really hard. I'm over here with guys, doing the same job they are, and yet I'm not respected in the same way."

Sergeant Olson is stationed at a desert air base where air conditioning is a rarity, running water is a recent innovation and the temperature can hit 100 degrees by late morning.

Nevertheless, she said, the toughest part of her life here is "just being a woman."

"Last night some guys wanted to go off the base," she said. "We were just going to get something to eat. The Saudi Arabian guard wouldn't let me go through the gate because I was a woman. He wanted me to walk all the way around and use the back entrance."

At first, women simply accepted their superiors' guidelines on dress and behavior. Lately, a few have begun testing the boundaries of the cultural restrictions imposed upon them.

They haven't gotten very far.

"We tried once to let one of the girls go out in shorts and run P.T. [physical training]," said Private Abbott.

"Within fifteen minutes . . . well, let's just say that it didn't go over too big."

Maj. Doug Bidle, an Army spokesman, said that more than a month of constant contact between Saudi troops and U.S. military women had brought no relaxation of the guidelines on dress and behavior.

"If anything, they've gotten stricter, because what little dress code there was in some cases was being violated," he said.

Most of the complaints have come from Saudi civilians startled at the sight of U.S. servicewomen in local towns, particularly female flight crew members who left the base without changing out of their form-fitting coveralls.

There was also one case of a U.S. military woman who entered a Saudi market wearing shorts and a halter top, a deeply offensive gesture in a culture where women often wear black gloves and facial veils in public to avoid showing even an inch of skin.

The guidelines don't just cramp the women's sartorial style. Women in one army unit say their participation in physical training drills has been made "optional."

"What that means is you don't exercise," one servicewoman complained.

"You're not allowed to wear running shorts. But if you wear long pants, the policy is the whole platoon has to, too. That wouldn't go over too big with the guys, so you just sit it out."

Most of the women serving in Saudi Arabia have few illusions that time will bring any significant change of attitude among the Saudi soldiers.

"One of the Saudi officers told me that, personally, he doesn't see anything wrong with women wearing shorts," one woman said.

"But he said his religion tells him different."

Sergeant Olson, whose dinner plans were disrupted by an outraged Saudi sentry, says she didn't try to argue with the man.

"We were told not to do things like that because we don't want to be disrespectful," she said.

"We're not asking or expecting the Saudis to change," said Major Bidle, the Army spokesman. "It's their country.

"It's a fact of life."

Military women, he said, have to "take a deep breath and learn to live within these guidelines."

As the presence of U.S. women on Saudi military bases becomes routine, they may win more acceptance from the population.

But it's clear that progress will be slow.

"When we first got here, the Saudi soldiers wouldn't talk to the women," said Army Sgt. Anna Limmer of Savannah, Ga.

"Now they do. But when we go into town, no one talks to us there."

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