I hate to say it, but exposing working-class American women to Saudi Arabia might be the best thing that's happened to feminism in a long time. I'd subtitle the article "Feminism and the Working-Class Woman".
By Steve Raymer NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC NEWS SERVICE
AL-KHUBAR, Saudi Arabia
When Pfc. Valerie Mitchell breezed into the Safeway supermarket in Al-Khubar one night looking for "Afro perm" hair-care kits, more than a few customers gave her a second look.
Dressed in battle fatigues and sand-caked boots, Mitchell, 19, of St. Louis, brushed past heavily veiled Saudi women in floor-length black "abayas," and Arab men in flowing white "thobes" and scores of Europeans, Filipinos and Americans in this polyglot corner of Arabia.
On aisle four, she found what she and her sister soldiers wanted. "After three months in the desert," beamed Mitchell, a computer operator with the Army's 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, "this is a little bit of all right."
No problem, either, that Mitchell had only American dollars in her pocket as she lined up at one of a dozen checkout counters. "We get more than 200 Americans a day in here, a lot of them women," the supermarket manager said, "and we gladly make change."
Ready to make do in an unheated tent in the Saudi desert, Mitchell disappeared into the night as quickly as she had arrived in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most conservative country in the Islamic world, as the U.S. troop buildup moves toward more than 400,000.
A Pentagon spokesman refuses to say how many women are serving in Saudi Arabia and neighboring sheikdoms, saying only that women make up 11 percent of U.S. armed forces worldwide.
Because of the "combat configuration of our foces," sayd Air Force Maj. Douglas Hart in Washington, "the percentage is less in the Persian Gulf."
By U.S. law, women are barred from serving in front-line combat units. But on today's battlefield, distinctions between combat and non-combat are blurred. For example, missle-handlers, who may be female, are just as likely to come under attack as riflemen, who are male.
The presence of women GIs, say both Saudi and U.S. officials, is an unspoken challenge to the customs, traditions, and religious teachings that long have made Saudi Arabia one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women.
While American women serve as tank mechanics, cargo-plane pilots, doctors, nurses, ammunitions haulers and weather forecasters, Saudi women are forbidden to drive cars. The government officially made it illegal in November after about 70 Saudi women conducted a protest in Riyadh, the capital, to challenge the decades-old traditional ban on driving.
Under severe Islamic strictures, Saudi women are veiled and robed from head to toe, forbidden to appear in public with men and to travel anywhere without the permission of husbands or male relatives.
The rules are based not so much on laws as on the Sharia, the edicts of the 14-century-old Koran.
"I haven't the slightest doubt," says one Saudi businessman who asks for anonymity, "that all these American women will change our country, especially the attitudes of very conservative young people."
On air bases, in trucks full of bombs and rockets or aboard hospital ships, U.S. women complain more about restrictions endured by Saudi women than about any restrictions on themselves. "I want to stay around Saudi Arabia long enough to see these women throw away their veils," says Army Spec. Melissa Benson, 20, of Durham, N.C.
Women GIs uniformly applaud the Saudi ban on alcohol, saying that the lack of liquor on military bases helps keep relations between the sexes on an even footing in this emotionally charged desert, where war is a constant prospect.
At "Assembly Area Horse," the main base of the 17,000-person 1st Cavalry Division, Spec. Robyn Gregory, 23, of Boise, Idaho, emerges from a plywood shower stall -- little privacy here -- with an M-16 rifle slung over her shoulder. Clad in a gray Ary-issue track suit, sneakers and gas mask, she towel-dries her short hair and chats with other GIs.
"I don't have any problems here except finding time to see my husband," says Gregory, a public information writer and photographer whose husband, Brian Reed, is a heavy-equipment driver. One of more than 700 women in the heavy-tank division, Gregory says she has seen her spouse three times in a month. The rest of the time she shares a tent -- partitioned by a plastic raincoat liner -- with men in her unit.
The number of uniformed married couples who are assigned to Saudi Arabia remains murky. Pentagon officials say they don't keep such statistics. Murky, too, are the numbers on mothers, such as Pat Antosh, a Major in the Army National Guard, whose four children are in the care of relatives in California. "Sure it's tough, tough on everyone," says Antosh, whose husband, Steve, a Marine Corps pilot, is also in Saudi Arabia.
Officially, the Pentagon says, parents -- especially parents who both have military careers -- must prepare legal-guardianship papers for such eventualities as the Persian Gulf standoff when they enter the service. Women GIs with small children at home who are given hardship discharges are the exception, not the rule.
Pentagon managers have estabilshed other policies to deal with the problem of pregnant GIs in Saudi Arabia. The women are sent home to have their children. Then they either return to military duty or take an administrative discharge. At an air base in eastern Saudi Arabia, National Geographic saw more than a dozen women in battle fatigues board a military cargo jet for Dover Air Force Base, Del. All were pregnant, said an Air Force officer who showed the correspondent transportation orders confirming their condition.
The Pentagon confirms that 12 American women have been airlifted out of Saudi Arabia because they were pregnant, but says that all of them were considered "medical evacuations". It keeps no statistics on those shipped home for so-called "administrative channels" -- discharges -- because of pregnancy.
Some male soldiers in Saudi Arabia, such as Marine Lance Cpl. John Presnell, 19, of Marion, N.C., are openly hostile to women troops. "Women are an unwelcome distraction," Presnell says as he sights a 60mm mortar at a firing range. "The infantry is the last bastion of male chauvinism."
Marines with the 1st Batallion, 3rd Regiment, confess to seeing few if any females in uniform as they enter their fourth month in the desert. But at a giant Saudi air base that routinely processes thousands of tons of cargo and hundreds of troops flown in on jumbo jets, American military women are everywhere:
* A flight crew of a cavernous C-5 Galaxy cargo jet taxis for takeoff. The co-pilot, a reservist, is a woman.
* A military police officer who stands guard nearby is a woman. So are the base's weather forecaster and some doctors and nurses.
* Lisa Wyson, 27, of Portland, Ore., barks orders at Pakistani drivers as she directs the latest arrivals from American, members of the Alabama National Guard, onto busses that will take them to the desert. "Whether you're a man or a woman," says Wysong, a graphi-arts student who was called to duty with the Oregon National Guard, "this place stinks."