Why American troops in Afghanistan shouldn't have to wear headscarves

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By Martha McSally
Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:00 PM

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.


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