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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. Female Soldier serving in Afghanistan

    Instead of playing cultural fashion police....How about we play it safe and wear that protective $300+ USD ACH helmet ?
    It covers your hair just as well as a scarf

    It makes my skin crawl when I see photos female soldiers walking about in scarves and everyone else in the photos/ videos is in full kit around them

    The idea of it being "demeaning to our women" is on the very bottom of my list of gripes
    We should be more worried about taking a round is or piece of schrapnel to the head!!!!!

    April 5, 2011 at 5:24 am |
  2. Alex

    I saw a picture of G. W. Bush wearing a kippot in a synagogue. He could just as well said "I'm the leader of the free world and I p–s on your religious customs". But even he wore headgear as a sign of respect. The US female soldiers could very well go around without headscarf, but this way they also show respect and get their job done easier.

    April 5, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  3. Veritas

    I am in Afghanistan right now and let me set the record straight. This is completely voluntary and only done in secure areas and only during a talk between a female soldier and a female Afghan. Then they suit back up and head out, it's no different than me as a male soldier growing a beard (if allowed) and taking off my helmet and sunglasses when I sit down to talk with an Afghan in their home. We are the guests of the Afghans here, they are our ally in a fight against extremists. Would you be insulted if your friend asked you to take off your shoes in their house just because you don't in you house?

    April 5, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • James

      And when these muslims come to our country, why can't they show respect by respecting our culture. We don't wear headscarves in our DMV pictures and we eat pork.

      Would the DMV allow me to wear a hat to take my driver's license picture? I think not. Foreign cultures are given so much more leeway in the US while Americans in foreign countries have to be on tippytoes.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:29 am |
    • Kam

      @ Stupid James
      when did muslims came to your country riding on aircraft carriers,combat helicopters or fighter jets,
      if you have guts ask a orthodox jew to take off his hat rather a muslim women to take off her scarf.
      But you wont do it i am sure you are too afraid of jews.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:40 am |
    • Susan A.

      James, would you ask a Catholic nun to remove her head scarf? People can alter their hair in many ways so it isn't actually a distinguishing characteristic. As for Muslims coming here and conforming to our culture, many do, but you don't see it because they look like anyone else. You will only spot the few that chose to wear their religious/cultural clothing. I don't think that is a bad thing. We have St. Patricks day for the Irish. Many people recognize and even celebrate Cinco de Mayo. That is part of what makes America so great is accepting other cultures. Now you say we should be as rigid as these countries. Where is the freedom in that?

      April 6, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  4. tim

    and as a former servicemember i say that female ex officer is a ate up loser. shes said ""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." ok what??? a different situation but use the same logic as another unrelated siuation? yea that makes zero sense and is tpyical of an officer in a damn plane not thinking of what the nelisted have to deal with. who in their right mind says to use the same logic for toally different conditions? yea dont fit in with the locals at all so they stay alienated and hate us.

    April 5, 2011 at 4:14 am |
  5. Jay

    I was in Afghanistan for two years, in Kabul and in the conservative regions as well. Afghans see the uniform first and deal with the women as soldiers, and generally don't care if a female soldier has a scarf on or not. I never saw a man flinch from a female soldier or refuse to deal with her. From my experience, it made the female CA officers more comfortable but had no bearing on how they were received by men or women.

    April 5, 2011 at 4:12 am |
  6. Marv

    Don't know why many Americans think we should not have to be sensitive to other cultures. I spent over 21 yrs actively serving and remember many Americans adjusting to other cultures and a handful that didn't. And trust me, those who didn't frustrated the many that did-we were so embarrassed to call them Americans. I never felt I was selling my country out or my self-worth. In fact, I felt proud to be an American-realizing others didn't have the freedoms that I had. If wearing a headscarf deprives an American of their self worth, when serving abroad, then something else is missing.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:50 am |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      Thank you for voicing your REAL experiences in the military. Throughout this comment section, I see a definitive line between the experienced military members who understand the flexibility required of today's soldiers, and those (mainly) civilians who do not. I say mainly because there are one or two old-school military gentlemen who think that conventional standards are applicable in this environment, when clearly they are not.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:05 am |
  7. mmi16

    Considering the intolerance the Afgahns are demonstrating about the idiot in Florida and his Quran burning having any courtsey toward them is problemactical. They can't concieve of freedom – be it religous or personal and can't interact with a free society. The ignorance that has been whipped up in the Afgahn population is indicitative of a seriously uneducated nature of the general population.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:48 am |
    • Veritas

      You really have no idea what you are talking about. We protest here in America when we see something offensive to us, they have the right as humans to do the same. It is a very small group of people causing these assemblies to become violent. The majority of Afghans want peace, they love music and dancing and many of the things Americans do.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:27 am |
  8. Ed

    I served 21 years in the military. I served several times overseas. While we do not need to be overly concerned most of the time with winning the hearts and minds of the indigenous population, it is and SHOULD be fully acceptable to make minor adjustments to break the ice and promote a closer relationship with our hosts. OPTIONAL – READ the article, people – wear of this kind of head covering can go great lengths toward endearing ourselves tot he locals. We are in THEIR country. We should respect THEIR customs, and when appropriate small gestures like this are not so intrusive that a FEMBOT retired Colonel needs to get her panties in a wad over it. It's not bra-burning time, for God's sake, and it is NOT mandatory....JEEZ, people!!

    April 5, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • J R Brown

      I, for one, would like to thank you for your service.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  9. LOW LYF

    I LIKE GRILLED CHEESE

    April 5, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • jim

      wen dey ax us ta way da scarv we dun do as dey say. Ya Suh!

      April 5, 2011 at 4:45 am |
  10. HuH?

    Whats all the fuss about, as has been stated, the scarves keep the sun off the head and prevent the lady from being stoned to death

    April 5, 2011 at 3:32 am |
  11. J R Brown

    American servicewomen wearing headscarves validates the oppression of females in muslim cultures. This fact alone should be sufficient to have the practice prohibited.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:30 am |
  12. JustMere

    I think if some of you people saw what these Muslim women are wearing UNDER the headscarves and Abayah's you might be singing a different tune. They dress more fashionable than the average American woman. Many are wearing almost nothing under all of that. It's cooler. Why the big fuss with some of you? The Army is not commanding that our women wear the headscarves, but are just encouraging them. When in Rome?? Or are all of you too backwoods to know what that means??

    April 5, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  13. viet nam vet

    that soldier needs to arrested and court-martial for being out of uniform in war zone. The military uniform can not be compromised with any personal ornament. When you are in uniform no other item may be seen that is not approved by military as that code of dress standard. That headscarved soldier looks ridiculous, an is a insult to the US military.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:24 am |
    • Veritas

      But these are being approved by the military leadership so it IS authorized. Your inflexible thinking is exactly why America has done such a poor job historically fighting a counter-insurgency.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:30 am |
  14. stormsun

    I'm with Col. McSally; our women are not second-class anything. They are not Middle Eastern property, they are American service personnel. Afghanistan did not invite us in...we went there to kick the Taliban thugs out of power, and we did so. Let the Afghan men AND women see that we treat our people with respect regardless of gender, that women have real positions of responsibility and are equal partners. The Afghanis don't have to do as we do, but it won't hurt them to get used to the idea that not everyone has the same backward, medieval mindset regarding women. Who knows, maybe some of them will begin to question the absurd traditions that have enslaved Afghan women for centuries.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • DGGass

      But they do ... they see the women working side by side with the men, with or without the hijab. The fact that women are even over there says a lot. Don't forget, it's only been a decade that women were allowed to actually be inside a war zone in roles other then nurses and medical staff.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:29 am |
    • Kam

      taliban and co are your assetts which produce an excuse for you to stay there to protect israel from jihadis
      the whole world knows it except naive americans

      April 5, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • Susan A.

      Stormsun, have you considered that harassing or berating a woman for choosing to wear a head scarf is a violation of her freedoms? If a woman wants to wear it, she should be allowed to do so. The scarf does not inhibit the wear of the military uniform in anyway. You can wear a helmet with it and even a gas mask. There is actually a piece of military clothing that is issued for cold weather that covers just as much of the head and neck. Why do so many Americans think a woman should be forbidden to wear a head covering? Why is it okay to take this right away when it hurts no one. Do you know some women in the west wear the head scarf to exercise that right even if it is not for religious reasons? Also, there are non-Muslim women who chose to wear the scarf in the Middle East. There are Christian sects that believe in it's use, but I hear no one complaining about these people. The only time wearing a head scarf is a problem is when it is forced.

      April 6, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  15. viet nam vet

    if a female military wants to hide her hair give her one choice.. shave off all your hair. No personal item should be allowed to be worn with the military uniform. If they are afraid to show their hair.. then shave it off.

    April 5, 2011 at 3:02 am |
    • get real!

      AGREED! I don't think headscarves are the way to go. Wear your hat or shave it off.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      While I give due respect to you for your service during the Vietnam war, I cannot agree with your statement concerning the military uniform. This is a new war, and while it may have similarities to Vietnam, progress cannot be made if steadfast rules and outdated mindsets prevail. Female Soldiers are playing a crucial role in winning the hearts and minds of a very large portion of the Afghan society – the women and children. If there's a tool available that may make it easier for these women to connect with each other, then by all means, it should be allowed (though certainly not mandated – ever).

      April 5, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • viet nam vet

      you obviously have never been in the military.. You have no right to wear personal items even religious ones that is visible with your uniform.. Your uniform is just that a UNIFORM not a place for personal expression. This is told to you when you are in boot camp. You can not wear any jewelry or item that is not a part of the uniform not even earrings. bracelets, necklaces. etc that can be seen. a wedding ring must be conservative no flashy diamonds. The military has a strict code of conduct that includes dress. This is all instructed to you in boot camp. Any deviation is grounds for disciplinary action. When you are in the military you will follow all orders and regulations without exception. If you do not want to do that then do not enlist. There is a distinct difference between being in the military and a civilian. You have no individual rights when it comes to how you are dressed in uniform. There is only one way.. the military way... without exception.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:36 am |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      In your infinite wisom and obviously superior military knowledge, I'll let you tell me where I am as I write this during my lunchtime... 12:26pm. Later on today I'll call my husband and to tell him good morning as he gets ready to start the day in North Carolina.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • Scott

      Vietnam Vet. I am in the military and I have served in the recent wars in the Middle East and your views and understanding our our military and its uniform are outdated at best. Outside of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, exceptions have been made to the uniform policy on several recent occasions concerning religious items. Recently a Sikn officer was allowed to join the Army and to where his traditional headgear, long hair and beard. Other such exception have been made recently as well. Special Forces troops have been altering uniform standards for decades to help them accomplish their mission. If a commander decides to allow troops to make minor alterations to the uniform where that alteration serves the mission, that is perfectly legal. Finally, if you had ever actually served in the military, you would realize that "being out of uniform in a war zone" is not a court martial offense. I doubt you are actually a Vietnam Vet, but if you are, then you really have no idea about the current military or the UCMJ.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:10 am |
    • Scott

      Oh... and Vietnam is one word... not two as you have used it Viet nam vet

      April 5, 2011 at 4:15 am |
    • DGGass

      Sorry VnV ... even back in the 80's we were allowed to wear earrings with our uniforms. Yes, there was conformity with the uniform, but we were allowed to wear them.

      I spent some time in Saudi for a US military training mission. While we weren't required to were the ayaba while in uniform, I did wear it when I was out in public in my civilian clothes. It didn't make me feel like a second class citizen, because I understood the culture that I was in.

      A soldier in a foreign country is technically an ambassador for the United States. Just because we're in the military (or even Americans) doesn't give us carte blanche to disrespect or disregard the host countries customs and laws. We expect visitors that come to our country to respect ours, why shouldn't we do the same?

      April 5, 2011 at 5:24 am |
    • Kam

      @ Vietnam vet

      the same way you shaved vietnami women with their skin attached by napalms in vietnam, another sick american

      April 5, 2011 at 5:26 am |
  16. Luek

    Oh great! We say that women in countries we are trying to win to our cause are second class citizens. Also, the dumb remark of that has been female ex pilot saying we should not require women soldiers to dress like our enemies really doesn't win hearts and minds for the US. If anyone is a second rate citizen it is the average male US soldier who is asked to possibly die for the US but back home he has the civil rights and property rights in family court of a medieval Russian serf. He has no right to his children. And under a hole Biden's VAWA his female significant other can dail 911 and just say he intimidated her and he will be incarcerated. The real tyrants are here in the US not 10,000 miles away on the other side of the earth!

    April 5, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  17. enricorosan

    Let us not forget that America is a Muslim country according to Obama when he confirmed it to the Turkish prime minister when he was in Washington. Also our dear Muslim president Barack Obama genuflected to the King of Saudi Arabia in a very cowering and cowardly fashion which is a sign of submission to an Islamic ruler. So, it is natural for our gutless Generals to demand that our female soldiers wear Hijabs and maybe one day a Burqa in order to look and act like the women and cows of Afghanistan. Yes, dear Americans the end is coming very soon and American lady soldiers wearing headscarves is one of the signs. .

    April 5, 2011 at 2:57 am |
    • paganguy

      Your buddy W was walking hand in hand with the Saudi King, you moron.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Kate

      I suppose you overlooked the section of the story about the REQUIREMENT–not optional as here–to wear an abaya in Saudi Arabia under Bush,Clinton and finally ended under Bush II. Was it a sign of the end of the world then?

      April 5, 2011 at 5:34 am |
    • Brad Wilmot

      At least "our friend W" didn't *BOW* to the Saudi king!

      April 5, 2011 at 5:38 am |
  18. Sophos

    It is a mystery to me why some Americans are so obsessed with "equality." It has become a religion for them. They take out a giant cookie cutter and dice up the world in litlle "equality" units. They club people over the head with the idea. No one is equal to anyone...what about that one? Everyone is different....what about that? To say you are equal to me is a flat lie. How about that? Why can't people in the US take off their cultural imperialism and see that a head scarf signifies difference. Solidiers are so big on "HONOR," why don't you look at the meaning of the hijab...it is honor...not your dumb, worn out, reworked, rehash of Western feminism... YUCK!

    April 5, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • viet nam vet

      American women had been discriminated against in the US an have been demanding equality for over 200 yrs. From voting, to job equality, legal equality in courts.. etc. just because you are female does not mean you are any different from males in regards to society. A penis does not make you superior to females.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  19. seriously

    That LT should be treated as a traitor. We should never be asked by our own government to dress like our enemies. I would never wear this headscarve with my uniform. My uniform shows I am an American soldier. My gender shouldn't matter and I should not be encouraged to "fit in" with the locals by wearing their garments. I am an American. I am not middle eastern. I view this as submission to Afganies. Why should I fight for my country when my country wants me to dress like the enemy???? To me, this is how they suppress their women. I didn't join the military for my own country to let another suppress me. This is so F'ed up beyond belief. We are not there to make friends. We are there to do a job, whatever that is, and leave.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:45 am |
    • Ogichidaakwe

      No where does it say that this smiling Afghan woman is an enemy. While it's true that she is part of a world where her voice is not as important as her husband's, she obviously had a moment or two to be happy and possibly change her own mind about American Soldiers. Stop thinking like a backwoods, never-seen-another-culture human being and just accept the fact that this LT, who you ludicrously accuse of being a traitor, is doing something extra to connect with another woman who just wants the turmoil to stop. And it clearly says at least twice that the choice to wear the scarf was her own.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:07 am |
    • Daniel R.

      It does not matter how American women dress there. The war was fumbled and lost there long ago, just like Iraq. Once again, invading without any concept of what you will do after was a lousy idea.

      In Iraq, the big winner is Iran, who lost their worst enemy (Saddam) and who have very close ties with the majority Shi'a. Nobody likes us there, except maybe the Kurds, and the independant Kurdistan which will eventually emerge after we leave will be invaded by the Turks. Which group of Muslims do you want to win in Iraq?

      And in Afghanistan, ask the same question: who do you want to win? Which group of Muslims do you want to be in control? Do any of them actually like us after years of occupation?

      Genuinely stupid wars. Getting entangled in the Middle East was a really bad idea, for far worse things than whether the women soldiers wear scarves. Are we any better or safer for having spent the lives of American soldiers in either country? No.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Ignorance

      Not every Afghan is the enemy, and you clearly have absolutely no clue what you are even talking about. Unless you are willing to actually come over here and see the job that American and Coalition forces are actually trying to do, just stop talking, because you have no idea what that job is or how it is being done. I've been here for the last six months working every day in local villages and cities risking my life every time I head outside the wire. What I've learned and found is that while there are some here that would like to kill us, there are an awful lot here that are truly interested in building a better country for themselves.

      Female soliders wearing headscarves is a sign of honor and respect over here, it is not a sign of submission or 2nd class citizenry as you or that clearly uninformed Air Force colonel would like to suggest. And we are trying to make the Afghans our friends, it is the only way we will ever be able to win this war. So go back to your little ethnocentric cave you live in there in the states and stop running your mouth about stuff you have less than zero clue about. I have a job to do over here and I don't need people like you or that colonel trying to make that job even harder than it already is.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:19 am |
    • Diana

      Dear Seriously, we're not at war with Afghanistan. In fact, we operate in cooperation with the current gov't there. It's the Taliban,AQ, and similar terrorist groups and terrorist sponsors we're after. It isn't really possible (in the context of Afghanistan) to identify the headscarf as the clothing of our enemies, as it is also a garment worn by many of our friends and allies in that country. Finally, I'd just like to say that if you are in fact serving in the US armed forces, thank you from the bottom of my heart, even though I vociferously disagree with your comment here.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:47 am |
    • high yr tenure

      i totally agree!!!! served 14yrs in the usn.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:26 am |
    • Longbow

      There is a regulation that requires a solider to meet certain criteria and unless they have changed 670-1 and now allow bright colors to be worn with combat dress, all soldiers should dress the same. It doesn't mention cultural attire. Oh....before you go on about not being there.........I've spent over 2 years in the box!!

      April 5, 2011 at 4:39 am |
    • Shane

      So it's a bad idea to allow female soldiers to wear something that will allow them to be tolerated better by the locals, and at the same time help increase the chances of a local coming to me with important information because I am showing that I am willing to be respectful for the local culture.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:44 am |
    • Kam

      @ Seriously
      you are the real face of american arrogance. Thanks for speaking the truth and letting the whole world
      know that americans are not what they pretend to be and women in the picture with headscarf is the same
      just pretending to be nice and friendly.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:22 am |
  20. mike

    So what, we allow male soldiers to wear shemagh in both Afganistan and Iraq. And GI Jane, our special forces soldiers are required to grow their beards in Afganistan.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Petraus

      when we want bearded women in our armed forces, we'll be glad to contact your mother. thanks for reminding us.

      April 5, 2011 at 4:15 am |
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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.