By Christina Cheakalos
February 11, 2002 12:00 PM

As the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Col. Martha McSally is a firm believer in following orders. For the past seven years, however, she has lobbied relentlessly against one directive: that women stationed in Saudi Arabia cover up with a head scarf and a traditional cloak called an abaya whenever they leave their base. Military officials argue that the dress code was meant to smooth relations with the conservative Islamic nation and to protect servicewomen from attack by fundamentalists. But McSally, 35, isn’t buying it. “If we were called into South Africa during apartheid, would we put our African-American soldiers in separate quarters?” she asks.

Apparently even the military sees her point. On Jan. 16, just six weeks after McSally sued him for religious and gender discrimination, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded at a press conference that there was an irony in U.S. troops fighting to free Afghan women from the burqa while America’s own female soldiers were forced into something similar. Seven days later, the Pentagon declared wearing the abaya “not mandatory, but strongly encouraged.”

Yet the battle is hardly over. The rule change has some Saudi leaders fuming. “There must be no exception in enforcing the Islamic dress code in Saudi streets,” Sheik Saad al-Saleh, an Islamic Affairs Ministry official told Reuters. And though McSally herself calls the ruling “a step in the right direction,” she refuses to drop the suit. “The phrase ‘strongly encouraged’ can come across as an order in the military,” she contends. Her cause has gained backers ranging from the National Organization for Women to the conservative Rutherford Institute. McSally wants the military to adopt a policy asking simply that personnel of both sexes dress conservatively. She also calls for an end to rules forbidding the 1,000 servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to leave the base without a male escort, drive a vehicle in public—or even sit beside the driver. “They let me go up in a fighter plane alone over enemy territory,” she says, “but they won’t let me sit in the front seat of a car in Saudi Arabia.”

She has never been one for the backseat. The youngest of five children reared in Warwick, R.I., McSally was just 12 when her father, Bernard, a lawyer, died of a heart attack. Her mother, Eleanor, now 67, became a reading specialist to support the family. Determined to “make my father proud,” McSally graduated at the top of her class at St. Mary’s Academy Bayview in 1984. She won a scholarship to the U.S. Air Force Academy and turned up on the first day dressed in black spandex pants, a T-shirt and high-top sneakers. Soon, she says, she was “pestering” her instructors to make her a fighter pilot—despite the military’s ban on women flying combat jets. She clung to her dream after graduating in 1988, even as she studied for a master’s degree from Harvard University’s School of Public Policy. And when the Defense Department opened the cockpit to seven women in 1993, McSally was among them.

After learning to fly the antitank A-10 “Warthog” at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, she was deployed to Kuwait to patrol Iraq’s no-fly zone. It was there, in 1994, that McSally read of the Air Force’s Saudi dress code and began bombarding superiors with letters urging its abolition. Posted to Saudi Arabia’ in November 2000, she avoided wearing the stifling abaya by sticking to the base while directing search-and-rescue missions over Afghanistan. Her objection is about more than discomfort. “I’m a Christian,” she says. “Asking me to wear the clothing of an observant Muslim is an injustice.”

McSally realizes that her activism may ground her career. In November 2000 a superior officer sent her an e-mail suggesting that it would be “extremely regrettable if you were to place yourself at risk professionally by choosing to violate a specific command directive.” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan says he hopes the suit won’t threaten her future, “but you can never say for sure.”

Meanwhile she’s back in Tucson, where she has been stationed since her tour in Saudi Arabia ended in December. A champion triathlete, the single McSally spends off-hours hiking with Bennigan, her 10-year-old golden retriever—and reading fan mail from fellow soldiers, male and female, around the world. Among her supporters is Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin, who took her to President Bush’s State of the Union Address last month. Another is the former senior military officer in Kuwait, retired two-star general Stephen Rippe, 53. “Martha drew a line in the sand for her principles,” he says. “A lot of us are pulling for her.”

Christina Cheakalos

Maureen Harrington in Tucson, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Nancy Day in Warwick