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Headscarves for female soldiers in Afghanistan defended
1st Lt. Ana Monteiro swings with an Afghan girl at Ariana School in Kabul, Afghanistan.
April 4th, 2011
03:27 PM ET

Headscarves for female soldiers in Afghanistan defended

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer

The top American military officer defended the Department of Defense policy of encouraging female troops to wear headscarves while on duty in Afghanistan, despite criticism the practice makes "second-class warriors."

"Those female service members ... do so as a personal choice," Adm. Mike Mullen wrote to Rep. James Langevin, D-Rhode Island, last week. "They feel this gesture helps them in accomplishing their mission by serving as a sign of courtesy and respect toward the locals."

For years, some American military women have worn headscarves, similar to traditional Afghan hijabs, when interacting with local civilians.

The policy has stirred up a new debate about whether female U.S. troops can or should wear headscarves while on duty in Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said servicewomen are "definitely not being ordered to wear headscarves."

Lawhorn, who has twice commanded troops in war, said women can wear the scarves under their helmets and that it is "unrealistic that any commander would trade the safety of any servicemember under their command for cultural consideration."

He compared it to other soldiers who are instructed to remove sunglasses and gloves as a sign of respect for Afghan culture when they greet a civilian.

The recent debate was stirred up by an opinion column in February in the Washington Post by Martha McSally, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who made history as one of America's first female fighter pilots. She calls the current practice "inappropriate."

In her column, she wrote, "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."

McSally fought a battle like this before. While stationed in Saudi Arabia before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, female servicemembers were ordered to wear an abaya, a long black gown and a headscarf.

She sued the military and Congress eventually forced the Defense Department to get rid of the rule.

"I'm not trying to say that the abaya policy in Saudi Arabia and this policy in Afghanistan is the same," she told CNN Monday. "But still the same logic should be applied, that it's inappropriate."

McSally said she understands that some troops in Afghanistan choose to wear the headscarves in order to help them do their jobs better.

"I completely understand why women in the field having a choice, given a mission to engage with the local women or a variety of other missions that they're wearing the headscarves on," McSally said. "My position on this policy is that this wearing of the hijab should never have been on the table as an option for them in order for them to do this mission. That the leaders above them, at the general officer level or above, should not have allowed it to be on the table as an authorized adaptation of the uniform."

Strict Afghan culture forbids women from interacting with men who are not members of their family. So the U.S. has female troops interact with local women when necessary.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Afghanistan • Islam • Military • United States

soundoff (270 Responses)
  1. Kenny

    What is there to be argue. This is war. The psychological warfare part says win the heart and mind of the people. If it takes wearing a scarf to do it, wear it. This is how you win war. Not by shooting every damn native in sight.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Veritas

      You nailed it.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:38 am |
  2. Headscarfwearer

    Dear Colonel McSally, thank you for your service to our nation. Given your background, you are obviously a bright woman. It is also obvious, however, that you are ignorant of a few things, including counterinsurgency, Afghanistan, Islam, and what it's like to be a female soldier or U.S. civilian operating on the ground and interacting with locals on a daily basis. We wear a headscarf because it is our way of respecting this society. We live in their world. Not the other way around. Though I cannot speak for every other female in-country, please refrain from commenting on our jobs or the way we go about doing them. We are professionals. We excel at this. We know what we're doing. And we love it. Your comments are unnecessary and a distraction from the hard work that we do every day. Best Regards, A Proud American

    April 5, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • get real!

      You obviously don't understand who this women is or what she's done. She's obviously brighter than you. You should respect her since she paved the road in which you are walking on. I think she has a clue and you don't. To call this woman ignorant only shows how little that you know. If anything, you couldn definitely learn something about patriotism, service, love of country, pride, and the military. Just because she is older, in no way means she is out of the loop. I think the only one who needs to refrain from commenting would be you. No, the military doesn't excel at their jobs nor do they all love it or know what they are doing. If that were the case, everyone would be joining and there would be no problems. That is not the case and very ignorant for you to tell someone not to comment on your job but you seem to try and speak for everyone. I don't know a single female that would want to submit to this and I would trade in my stripes first before I dress like that. Nothing personal, I am an American and I will dress in my American military uniforms. From a fellow female soldier.

      April 5, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • Susan A.

      Headscarfwearer, thank you for your comment. As a female soldier in Afghanistan, you, more than anyone else has a right to comment on this article. I think most military females that have served in these two recent wars agree that you have to adapt to your surroundings. The ignorant woman who wrote this article may have paved the way for Air Force females, but she has no concept of how things work for ground troops. She should have no say in how we conduct our business.

      April 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  3. Terry P

    The Army Generals are a gutless bunch of moro@ns. Get out of Afghanistan NOW.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  4. Frederica

    Nuns(Catholic sisters) are forever beautiful in the same way – the sign of holy submission to God. Outlook tells something to human souls.

    April 5, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  5. Frederica

    Headscarves are beautiful. It signifies the beauty of womanhood in its maximum way.

    April 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • Chubbywubba

      I always thought that "womanhood" was, well, you know – down 'there'.

      April 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Janet McCarthy

      Amongsts civilized people, headscarves on a woman signify that it is raining. For women in a domineering religious culture, is signifies subservience and submission.

      April 4, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • Frederica

      Janet, that's the thing. I think women showing signs of willingness to submit to a male leadership are eternally beautiful, as well as men who are willing to die to protect women and children and for their well-being.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • Frederica

      And let's not define what "civilized" mean. Muslims only need freedom of conscience, human rights and equal rights. They may come up with a better society with their headscarves on than the West. I think rich nations have become quite barbaric.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Waffle Bob

      Gosh you're crazy!

      April 5, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • seriously

      A woman is beautiful when she submits to a man???? Yeah, you're wacked. You must think this woman must be beautiful when getting beaten for not milking the camel fast enough. You should probably learn more about the American culture to see why American women do not submit. In America, they are equals. There is no submitting to anyone. That is why they are envied. Just like how the Greeks envied the Romans. Your replies are so backwoods I can't even comprehend what would make you say those things.

      April 5, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • Frederica

      @Seriously: You are talking about abuse or crimes, not the same issue. No, power-hungry women are particularly ugly. It destroys homes and children. Let's see how much longer Americanism in that way survives. Both Greeks and Romans are gone.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:30 am |
  6. GIJane

    Do the male soldiers get to choose to wear an islamic style beard and long skirt?

    April 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Waffle Bob

      No, but there is a fabulous new uniform coming out that Lady Gaga designed – very bold and brash, alluring yet absurd, and utterly flamboyant. The runway is not just for landing planes on anymore!

      April 4, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • Chubbywubba

      Mmm, Bobby, that's hot.

      April 4, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  7. Nancy

    So if female soliders cannot interact with Afghan males there at all then how can they realistically do the job at their fullest? They can't interrogate any males. Most of the males are the contractors, business people, local police forces etc that the military deals with as well so what do female soldiers do there exactly besides hanging out with the female locals?

    April 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Apple6

      They get to interact with people of an entirely different culture. Some people have a harder time serving people at a store in Quebec. Before we muse about the Afghan social scene, can we focus on the social problems in Quebec first?

      April 5, 2011 at 2:20 am |
  8. GSA

    @PraiseTheLard – yes, undercover operatives. So putting on a bright pink scarf while still wearing army fatigues....brilliant noone will spot them, lol.
    I'm thinking they wear them to fit in while not in battle and to be able to have the ppl there relate to them and to gain trust and a good relationship with the locals.

    April 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      I guess my sense of irony doesn't come across well... I was also playing on the fact that their heads are under cover...

      April 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  9. PraiseTheLard

    If they're trying to become undercover operatives, it may not work...

    April 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  10. SadieSadie

    If it is their choice to wear them and they come in camo I don't see what this woman's problem is, unless she just wants to stir up trouble. Sometimes it is easier to accomplish things with the help of insiders so if wearing these scarves helps them gain the trust of the women then go for it.

    April 4, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  11. GM

    I don't see much difference between this and male american soldiers sometimes being allowed to grow beards to blend in a bit and fit better into the culture.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • HCTN

      You are correct. I read this article expecting them to bring up the subject of beards but they never did, kind of missing the point if you ask me.

      How in the world are we supposed to accomplish our military mission in Afghanistan if we disrespect the people. Or is our mission to go around like jerks imposing American culture on the whole world?

      April 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  12. SK

    @ Vaytin...
    I'm not implying anything about your personal views on anything. My statement was to make a point that when clothing/accessories are associated with something, it is not just fashion, whether it may look good or not. Sure, head scarves can be cute... but this is not why they are worn in the cases as referred to above.

    I'm not even saying it's right or wrong... I'm just saying it's not fashion.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Vaytin

      @SK – You're quite right. Sorry. I was being dumb-stupid. Trolling is harder than I expected it to be. Thanks for not shooting me.

      April 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  13. CatholicMom

    The head scarf makes the female soldier an easy target.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Michael

      How did you come to that conclusion?

      April 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Something

      Her [soldier in picture] choice to pick that garish color. I keep thinking of Isadora Duncan, though, oy!

      April 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  14. SK

    Are you trying to say you think the women in Afghanistan wear scares as a fashion statement?...

    White robes and hats were really fashionable once too... (?)

    April 4, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Vaytin

      @SK – Are you trying to imply that I am a white supremacist or something? Did somebody step on your ego and I get the crap or what? What is your problem?

      April 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • SK

      @ Vaytin...
      I'm not implying anything about your personal views on anything. My statement was to make a point that when clothing/accessories are associated with something, it is not just fashion, whether it may look good or not. Sure, head scarves can be cute... but this is not why they are worn in the cases as referred to above.

      I'm not even saying it's right or wrong... I'm just saying it's not fashion

      April 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • ScottK

      "but this is not why they are worn in the cases as referred to above." You are correct sir.

      The Arabic word Hijab literally means curtain or cover (noun). Most Islamic legal systems define this type of modest dressing as covering everything except the face and hands in public. Another definition is metaphysical, where al-hijab refers to "the veil which separates man or the world from God.

      Even in some Christian sects the women cover their heads during meetings or prayer to represent their "spiritual head" being their husbands and that they are not allowed to approach God by themselves, they must go through the male mediator of the family. This is common with some members of the FLDS and JW's and other lesser known Christian splinter groups.

      April 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  15. Vaytin

    Scarves again! Why is this an issue? When I was young many women wore scarves all over the USA. It was just a fashion accessory. It still is. This is a non-issue in or out of uniform.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Vaytin

      @Nonimus – I see you posted just before I did. Yes, military-wise it needed a "go / no go" decision by the brass but we are a country of many religions and non-religious people. A headscarf can have military uses. This is only on CNN because they are trolling people about Muslims. This isn't about headscarves at all, I think.

      April 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Vaytin,
      "A headscarf can have military uses."
      What military use would it have that is not already accomplished by standard military gear? For civilians, I agree that this shouldn't be an issue, it's a personal choice, regardless of religion.
      As for CNN trolling, apparently Adm. Mullen wrote to a Representative last week – I guess one persons trolling is another persons news.

      April 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  16. SK

    I think the (female) soldiers should clearly understand why the women in the country wear these scarves, and then determine for themselves if they believe they're necessary and aid in accurately portraying what they want to accomplish. While maybe it's good PR, I don't think it sends a clear message when another another cultural tradition is adopted when the history of the tradition is not something "you" agree with. They don't take their head scarves off while in America to speak with Americans.
    Maybe as a statement male soldiers should wear them too...

    April 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  17. ArijanDibran

    We as Americans have freedom of choice, if the women soldiers choose to wear a scarf over there hair and be respectful, let them be. If a woman soldier doesn't want to wear a scarf over her hair, thats her choice, let them be. I don't know why this an issue of discussion. Its freedom of choice

    April 4, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Nonimus

      To join the Military a person gives up certain rights due to the nature of the job. Clothing, or the uniform is one of those things. In order for female soldiers to wear a headscarf while in uniform it must have been authorized, as the article states, as an approved adaptation. Normally head scarves are never allowed for anyone in uniform, if I understand correctly.

      April 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  18. BG

    It' nothing more than PR with the locals while in-country. It's non-regulation stateside.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Kaos32

      well said!

      April 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  19. LLBD

    The American female soldiers are still soldiers – change out the color of the scarf to be camouflage to match the uniform, and then I'll go along with it, but don't take away their AMERICANISH womanhood as Female Soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

    April 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • ScottK

      "Those female service members ... do so as a personal choice," The woman in the picture likely picked that scraf out herself as a personal choice. If they "forced" the women to wear any color or pattern including camo I would be against it unless they required it of ALL military personel as with the uniform dress code.

      April 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Apple6

      1. It adds color to green uniforms
      2. It protects the head from sun burns
      3. It looks pretty
      4. It shows we respect local traditions ( to an extent, of course)
      5. It looks pretty
      6. It's a chance for us girls to stand out among a traditionally male portion of our government.

      Basicly Im cool with the idea. Maybe that's why women there Re ok with head scarves? They probably do protect the head from uv rays.

      April 5, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • JimP

      7. Makes the head a clearer target for snipers.

      April 5, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  20. EJ247

    It's a shame the Afghans don't show the same respect for us as we do them.

    April 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • ArijanDibran

      Yes the majority of Americans give Afghans respect. Calling them terrorists and putting all Muslims into one group of extremists and radicals. Yea that is quiet respectful

      April 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Kaos32

      They do show us respect, ecspeacially the LN's that the government hires to make us more comfortable. To be truthful they act terrified of us and I dont blame them. This is a great idea from a tactical stand point and it offers a starting point for trust and respect.

      April 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Ron

      I agree, however, regardless if one agrees or disagrees, it is their culture. If one hopes to proceed and gain any kind of acceptance, one has to follow some of their rules.

      April 4, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.