In 2001, I was an Air Force lieutenant colonel and A-10 fighter pilot stationed in Saudi Arabia, in charge of rescue operations for no-fly enforcement in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Every time I went off base, I had to follow orders and put on a black Muslim abaya and head scarf. Military officials said this would show “cultural sensitivity” toward conservative Saudi leaders and guarantee “force protection” – this in a nation where women couldn’t drive, vote or dress as they pleased.
To me, the 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 the U.S. constitutional values I pledged to defend and degraded military order and cohesion.
I already had tried for years to get the policy changed. Late in 2001, I sued then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the policy. 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.
I remember a discussion with congressmen and staffers about whether the legislation should be broadened to cover military personnel serving in any country. We 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.
Sadly, we were 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.
“Within Afghanistan, the donning of a scarf or other type of head covering by our female service members can be done as a sign of respect to the local culture and people they must necessarily interact with,” a senior U.S. military official told me via e-mail. “This can help promote greater trust and a fuller interaction with the local population as well as increased access to persons and places that contribute to mission accomplishment.”
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, this attire is considered optional and at the discretion of “leaders on the ground,” said the official.
However, when a superior tells a military subordinate any practice is optional, the very mention of the practice creates pressure to comply. This is especially true in combat settings, when subordinates must trust their commander’s direction to maximize mission effectiveness and protect lives.
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.
In the regions where the FETs are working, most local women still wear burqas, the head-to-toe gown that has a net over the eyes. So our female soldiers hardly blend in, with their weapons, boots and camouflage, and that bright scarf over their hair.
One officer told me she refuses to wear the scarf but is unwilling to speak out publicly against it. Yet many female troops defend the practice.
“It’s part of the effort to show we’re sensitive to the local culture,” Marine Capt. Jennifer Gregoire told the Associated Press in 2009. “If you show your hair, it’s kind of like seeing a nude picture here, because women are very covered up.”
Marine Col. Sheila Scanlon, an adviser to the Afghan Interior Ministry on gender issues, explained it this way to U.S. military bloggers last year: “All of us try not to insult the Afghans and to try to abide by their rules.”
I applaud these warriors’ desire to do whatever it takes to win this war. But wearing the scarf when in U.S. military uniform is appeasement, not respect. Our troops should not conform to customs that represent the marginalization of people and are incongruent with our fundamental values. Would our military leaders have dared encourage African American troops to submit to local customs if they had been ordered to deploy to South Africa under apartheid?
America has a long history of pride in the military uniform, and the Army has a 362-page directive on proper uniform wear. Included are guidelines that accommodate freedom of religion by outlining what religious attire or jewelry can be worn with the uniform. Anything that interferes with the wear or function of the military hat or protective gear, including the Kevlar helmet, is forbidden. Under these rules, a Muslim soldier stationed in the United States who wanted to wear a headscarf with her uniform would not be permitted to do so.
The Muslim headscarf, a religious custom that aims to deflect sexual attention from non-male relatives, is certainly a point of much controversy. It is currently outlawed by France and Turkey in public institutions. Scholars disagree whether it is even mandated by the Koran. Some label it as a symbol of female subjugation while others call it liberating.
In Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, the world saw the hallmark of Taliban oppression – women who failed to cover up risked death. 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. In conjunction, U.S. military women are simply submitting to Muslim practices that symbolize the plight of Afghan women when they put on the scarf themselves.
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.
Our male and female troops are risking their lives every day in Afghanistan while proudly representing and defending the United States. They are there to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda while assisting Afghans in securing their future from extremist oppression. With our Afghan partners, trust can be built on a foundation of mutual respect, where no one is expected to submit to others’ cultural and religious guidelines.
By Martha McSally, a Colonel Retired Air Force and a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. Her views are not necessarily those of the center or the Department of Defense.