Should our Servicewomen in Afghanistan Have to Wear Headscarves?

One can always count on seeing some very exciting and spirited debates at The Moderate Voice, whether the subject or issue is religion, politics, culture, war, gender issues, our military, women in combat—or just plain principle and individual rights.

Well this one has just about a little bit of “all of the above” and I am curious as to how the debate will go.

Readers may remember that, back in 2001, Martha McSally, then an Air Force lieutenant colonel and A-10 fighter pilot stationed in Saudi Arabia, sued then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the policy that required American servicewomen to wear a black Muslim abaya (a long overgarment worn by some women in parts of the Islamic world) and a head scarf whenever they went off-base.

The policy allegedly showed “cultural sensitivity” toward conservative Saudi leaders and guaranteed “force protection” in a country where women were not allowed to drive and were subjected to other restrictions.

McSally, an officer in charge of rescue operations for no-fly enforcement in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, writes in a Washington Post column:

[T]he abaya directive, with its different rules for male and female troops and the requirement that I don the garb of a faith not my own, violated the U.S. constitutional values I pledged to defend and degraded military order and cohesion.

McSally won her lawsuit:

Congress stepped in and approved legislation that prohibited anyone in the military from requiring or encouraging servicewomen to put on abayas in Saudi Arabia or to use taxpayers’ money to buy them.

However, the legislation only applied to personnel serving in Saudi Arabia.

Now, McSally regrets that at the time she, congressmen and staffers “naively decided that Saudi Arabia posed the worst-case scenario; the military would get Congress’s intent and would not require servicewomen to wear Muslim attire in any mission elsewhere.”

McSally now admits that they were sadly mistaken:

Nearly a decade later, some female soldiers serving in Afghanistan are being encouraged to wear headscarves. Some servicewomen have taken off the regulation helmet and worn just the scarf, even when on patrol outside, in their combat uniforms and body armor, M-4s slung over their shoulders.

The more common practice is to wear the scarf under one’s helmet or around the neck, pulling it on as the servicewoman removes her Kevlar helmet upon entering a village or building.

Again, the military claim that the donning of a scarf or other type of head covering by female service members is a “sign of respect” to the local culture and “can help promote greater trust and a fuller interaction with the local population…”

While, unlike in Saudi Arabia, the attire is considered optional and at the discretion of “leaders on the ground,” McSally claims that, especially in combat settings, when a superior tells a military subordinate that a practice is optional, “the very mention of the practice creates pressure to comply.”

McSally goes on to explain that “most of the U.S. servicewomen wearing headscarves are assigned to Female Engagement Teams (FETs), charged to reach out to local Afghan women and win their hearts and minds as part of the new counterinsurgency strategy. Wearing the hijab is thought to facilitate this access, since all Afghan women are expected to wear a headscarf when in public.”

Regardless of the reasons given by the military, and while applauding the “warriors’ desire to do whatever it takes to win this war,” McSally is adamant that “wearing the scarf when in U.S. military uniform is appeasement, not respect,” and that our troops “should not conform to customs that represent the marginalization of people and are incongruent with our fundamental values.”

She adds that the headscarf, a point of much controversy, is currently outlawed in France and Turkey, is seen by some as a symbol of female subjugation and points out that during the Taliban oppression in Afghanistan, women who failed to cover up risked death and that now, “nine years after the fall of the Taliban government, Afghan women are still required to cover themselves and have hardly moved toward the equal rights and liberties we envisioned.”

Finally, McSally pleads:

American servicewomen will continue to be viewed as second-class warriors if leaders push them to take up the customs of countries where women are second-class citizens. The abaya policy in Saudi Arabia and the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in a war zone in Afghanistan are cut from this same flawed thinking. Top military leaders should issue guidance that U.S. servicewomen are not authorized to wear a Muslim headscarf while in their uniform conducting military duties. If they don’t, Congress should intervene again, as they did on the abaya, and prohibit its wear.

What do you think? “Much to do about nothing,” a legitimate issue, or something in between?

Image: Courtesy Huffington Post

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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