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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. Sagebrush Shorty

    This is the United States Army? More Muslim appeasement courtesy of your tax dollars. What this country needs is a Commander-in Chief who puts America first instead of the poor picked on Muslims.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  2. hayfield

    Muslims should not be allowed in the US Military. Remember the army major psychiatrist Hasan.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  3. Maya

    I find it somewhat amusing that the very people most vehemently against this policy, many of whom say they are against it because it gives the appearance that female soldiers are second-class, are the same people who cough up a lung every time someone suggests that qualified women should be permitted to serve as combat troops. Basically, they want to treat women as second-class internally, but they don't want to give that appearance outwardly because they hate the idea that doing so might appease Muslims. Don't try to tell me that barring women from combat is about unit cohesiveness and operational effectiveness or some such other crap, because you used the same illogical nonsense about gay people and it didn't make any sense then either. After all, wearing a headscarf is about operational effectiveness too: who cares about unequal treatment if it means better results, right?

    April 5, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  4. Two Witnesses

    What is our mission there? Are we fighting backwards gender repressive terrorists or are we trying to assimilate and commiserate with the enemy?

    April 5, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      The enemy is assimilating us.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      Anyone with more than an 8th grade education would know that civilizations never assimilate the people they control. Rather, those cultures that are dominated become a part of the controlling country's culture.

      If you thought we'd turn the Arab countries white then you are just plain dumb. The more we interact with them, the more of their culture will become part of ours...

      Cinco de Mayo? Pagan Christmas? Days of the week named after Norse gods anyone?

      April 5, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  5. fpitz

    bobo – exemplifies totally the Xenophobic nature/mindset of this failing country of ours: "We are Americans...why are we bending over backwards to appease these people?"

    April 5, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  6. bobo

    Please note secretary of state Clinton donned a head scarff in her travels to arab countries/so did a few national female journalist..
    BUT they looked silly...
    Why should the women of the US army have to dress accordingly to a culture that disrespects women and treats them like 3rd class citizens. It would be like the US sending it's athletes to the olympics in germy 1938 and then telling them to appease Hilter by wearing a swatzsticker..
    As a man I am offended that we treat our female solider in this manner..I can only imagine what women think of this idea.
    I mean if a female solider wears a headscarf she will be disrespected by the men of that culture..it is like giving in to their male dominated society
    Why aren't the male solider requirred to grow beards or adopt other elements of their culture.
    I think it is funny that the current administration bows down to these world leaders and cultures...we are america for pete's sake.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  7. oracle

    Like it or not, we are in THEIR country. Ever hear the old saying "When in Rome do as the Romans do"? Not much different than how we expect foreigners to act when in our country. Oh, that's right,, we tell the rest of the world what is right and wrong. I forgot. Sorry.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      Fair enough,let's se Muslim women in America go without any type of head covering.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  8. just kidding

    I think she looks pretty with the pink headscarf. All our grandmothers wore the headscarf it is a symbol of respecting women in other cultures. Whereas in the west we see it as a symbol of degrading them. Are they backwards or are we? We are the only ones unwilling to listen and understand. Optional should mean optional. I support the women doing anything that makes them feel safe and respected and let them choose that whatever that is.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  9. Kbell

    I am totally APPALLED at our so called Washington Military Leaders today! Why should you allow OUR AMERICAN female soldiers to dress in a way that says "HEY I'm a female American soldier?" If I were still active military I would defy this order. What the heck are your UPPER MILITARY thinking? OH wait – you aren't ~ or that so called president of yours told you to order them to wear the headdresses. Oh by the way – HE NEVER EVER served in OUR military, so what does HE know. I have twice & again he is putting our female solders in danger. FIGURES ~ not a very good leader in my opinion- oh can you tell that I did not VOTE for him & never will.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • Karen

      You have it exactly. Amen

      April 5, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • SGTbadd

      I have been serving in the Army for 8 years now, and have been deployed to Afghanistan. Have you? Any of you. Some people that have commented are straight ignorant of how anything over there works.

      They wear the scarves so they can make the afghani woman feel at ease and a little more confortable so she will talk and give us intel on the enemy. You're an idiot if you can't see that. ALSO.... OBAMA didn't start this.... A general under W. Bush did. You'll blame anything on this pres. We're in afghanistan.... Did obama start this war? Iraq? He started that right?

      If you want to judge your Military, Join. Serve. Once you have done your time. You can judge all you want.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      @SgtBadd – Bravo!!!!!!

      April 5, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  10. bobo

    Wearing a head scarf is redicilous...it is really a symbol of a 2nd class citizen in these countries...what next..having the female solider wear a burka? We are americans...why are we bending over backwards to appease these people?
    99.9 percent of female soliders aren't musuelm..so why would you wear something mandiated by their religion...

    Why are we afraid of these people? doesn't matter if it is a cartoon of Mohammad/if someone burns the koran...a woman that doesn't wear a headscar...what gives these people a right to become an angry mob.
    It would be like saying someone disagrees with obama, then all harlem has the right to burn NY? Then everyone would be afraid to express an opinion against the president..it is the same logic.
    I honestly don't believe it is an "option"..these female soliders are forced to wear the damn things..it is like obama bowing down to that chinese leader or kissing the ring of the saudi king. It is the US giving in to appease others

    April 5, 2011 at 6:27 am |
  11. freetime1

    When the males in the Army there get to have beards so they to fit in better with the local population there might be an argument for this. Not that it is a good idea just they would be able to make this argument, but by singling out women they have show how wrong it is!

    April 5, 2011 at 6:25 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      Special ops soldiers DO wear beards. Green Berets have pictures in civvie clothes with beards and turbans... Fail...

      April 5, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  12. Marcnj

    Like it or not, we're in their country, and trying to bridge the gap to seem less threatening to the friendlies is wise. Standing out in a crowd is the perfect way to get shot.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  13. Natch

    This RETIRED female officer/pilot should keep her nose where it belongs.....on her face, instead of back in the military's business. Once you retired, lady, you lost your right to tell military members what they can and can't do. If you want it back again, come out of retirement, or run for federal political office (because they all think they're armchair generals! LOL).

    My only question to the wearing of scarves would be if the women who are doing so are also keeping their helmets handy, as the Kevlar in those will stop a bullet better, if something goes down, than that scarf will. Also, shouldn't they at least consider camouflage scarves??

    April 5, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • Karen

      Never should an American woman have to wear a headscarf, and especially military women. As far as the retired Army officer's opinion she should keep telling that the current women soldiers in foreign countries should not have to adhear to the law of dress for women. We are Americans. We are not citizens of Afghanistan. Even though we are in their country we should only wear our American militry uniforms. the stupid scarf should not have to be worn. It is not part of the American military uniform. In fact I think making women of any country second class should be abolished. Women anywhere are just as good as men and men need to begin realizing that.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • Susan A.

      Karen, it is clear you were never a soldier who served in the Middle East. Your statements are deeply offensive to those of us women who have. How dare you, as a civilian with no military experience, tell me and other women what is best for us in a combat environment. I wouldn't tell you how to do your job, why do you think you can tell military females how to do ours.

      April 6, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  14. Frederica

    Afghanistan needs food, literacy and religious freedom more than anything else. I hope American soldiers know that.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:02 am |
    • Kam

      american soldiers are laughing at your comment and surprised that how ill-informed is the public.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • ICWorld

      no what it needs is a good nuking to put an end to the problem.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • Frederica

      Kam, why did America go there? If they fail to bring literacy and religious freedom, it'll be a real failure. Democracy does not work with illiterate people with oppressive ideology. There will be always new victims.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  15. DrMabuse

    The head scarf isn't military issue, so take it off. How ridiculous.

    April 5, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • Kam

      how about a camouflage scarf??????? and that too under a helmet acceptable???

      April 5, 2011 at 6:14 am |
  16. ma1961

    what a joke, are we sure we are fighting a war??????

    April 5, 2011 at 5:45 am |
    • Kam

      If Petraeous is your commander then politics and war go side by side

      April 5, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  17. VRage13

    As a military member, is the headcovering now part of the miltary uniform?

    April 5, 2011 at 5:43 am |
    • elnyka

      Did you read the article?

      April 5, 2011 at 6:03 am |
    • Natch

      Probably not. The scarves are authorized to be worn with the uniform, in the performance of certain duties that bring them into contact with local women.

      Reading comprehension, for the win!

      April 5, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • DeadGuy

      It's been more than 30 years since I wore a uniform, but a couple of things come to mind.

      Are beards and civilian attire part of the uniform for some of the male SpecOp folks? Maybe you do what you need to accomplish the mission? And just maybe a different kind of war requires a different kind of tactic? Just sayin'.

      And I was on your side until I took the time to read Paradox...

      -Dg

      April 5, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • WAKE UP PEOPLE

      Women in that part of the world are treated as animals, dogs, pets. If they see an American Woman Soldier being equal to men, maybe just maybe they can understand that their lot leaves much to be desired.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      @WakeUp – Or perhaps, after all the years of NOT resisting this treatment they may see the American women that don't HAVE to wear the scarves as standing in solidarity with them.

      The world isn't black and white... Maybe in America it is but no where else...

      April 5, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  18. Paradox6

    War are lost when a nation no longer has the ability or will to fight. And by "nation" I mean the people of the nation, not necessarily a national government or faction. Ability is usually thought of in terms of arms, military manpower, military strategy and tactics and the ability to project force. National will is thought of as the commitment of the people to see the mission through.

    Historically, most wars have been won by defeating the "ability" to fight. Korea and Viet Nam were a transition to a new type of war. This war is a battle of the national "will" to win. This war will be won when the number of mothers, like the one shown in the picture, decide that their lives will be better by building a peaceful nation, that allows them to build a better future for their children, than what Taliban control of their nation will ever provide for them, and by building a nation that will participate peacefully in the world and not be a threat to their neighbors or us. At some point, their nation will reach a tipping point of being able to govern and secure itself, where for most of the population, they will be able to work, live, provide education and have the opportunity we all seek.

    Our goal or objective is not to secure a hilltop or to necessarily defeat a specific military force in the field, but to create the conditions where they can self govern, provide basic services, create industry and jobs, educate their kids and police and defeat violent factions on their own. The expectation that we will remove all violence or that there won't be periods of turmoil or unrest is unrealistic, any more than for us to claim we are able to prevent all crime in our own country. Our mission is to create those conditions where they can begin that process.

    What seems missing from the discussion is the failure to understand what the term "mission" means to our military. It carries with it a certain singularity of purpose and commitment, to which all else is secondary. It is based upon a level of commitment to everyone in the organization once we put the first person in harm's way.

    Consider, for a second, what that young lieutenant truly represents in that context. She is the point of our "national" spear. Convincing that mother that her best future is in a peaceful nation and where America is not the enemy and respects her values. Where our "uniform" is less important than her mission. Where our ego is less important than her mission. Where achieving our mission is best accomplished by respecting her traditions rather than asserting our traditions.

    I'm just an old lieutenant who is very proud of that young lieutenant. She has it right. I grew up with Dave Petraeus, he has it right.

    April 5, 2011 at 5:43 am |
    • Kam

      In Afghan-pakistan pakhtun culture a child see their father murdered in front of them due to tribal/personal enemity
      and when grows up he kills his fathers murderer infront of his son and that sons then kills him infront of his child and the cycles continues on. A life of enemity and vengeance is what which prevails in that society so if there is foreign occupying force is present then that generational enemity transforms into a general resistence towards foreigners and can continue to centuries as its the Pakhtun way of life and loss life is just part of life. So there is no future for any foreign force in Afghanistan and history and present proves that.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • ICWorld

      why in the world would our military leaders even condone our troops looking anything like ragheads. These women are no different than their male counterparts and should be wearing helmets in any area that they are deployed in. It's putting their safety at risk to wear just a piece of crap cloth. Any Officer or Non-Comm that holds this practice against our female soldiers should have their rank stripped and drummed out of the force. They are not looking out for the safety and best interest of our troops.
      Instead we should force the ragheads over there to deal with females. If they can't handle it then maybe they shouldn't try and force their beliefs on others.
      This is not a military issued equipment that is designed to protect. They are just afraid that they may insult a raghead plain and simple. This would never even have been an issue back WWI or WWII. We would have told them to frak off our soldiers wear the proper uniform. A crap rag is not proper uniform. Any woman in our service that wears one over there should be ashamed. Ask your Company Commander to dress like them I doubt he would do it, but they expect you to forego your gear in exchange for preventing them from being insulted. Who gives a rats ass if they get insulted by the way our female soldiers dress. It's not their military it's OURS!! for crying out loud.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • Paradox6

      Reply to Kam: History is instructive, not probative. It was once thought that resisting the King of England was futile.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Derek

      @ICWorld: Had you read the article, you would know that no one- I repeat, NO ONE- is saying they should wear the scarves INSTEAD of helmets. For crying out loud, have some common sense.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • pk1

      Paradox, thanks for the good post, I'm glad someone here understands what is going on and isn't blinded by ignorance and hate.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      @ICWorld – You are an idiot...

      A) First, actually serve your country...
      B) Not an issue in WW1 or 2? How about the fact that during those wars all non-white people WERE treated as second class and not allowed to be anything other than ammo loaders and cooks.
      C) STFU...

      April 5, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  19. Jake

    There is nothing wrong with this. It is an option not a requirement. And it doesn't make second class warriors. The military treats everyone based on rank and a simple headscarf won't change that. People get so bent out of shape over simple things or anything Muslim. One could make the argument that females are already second class warriors though, since they can't be combat troops although some find themselves in that situation.

    April 5, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • Pengor

      As a former soldier I can tell you it is not optional. The woman that refuses to wear the head scarf will pay in her performance evaluation. Wearing the headscarf is optional, just like getting promoted.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • buddy Rogers

      So, Jake, what's next for our female soldiers? Burkas? Chadors?

      April 5, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      Pengor – As a former soldier myself I can tell you it IS optional. No one has and no can show evidence that someone has been "punished" for not wearing this garment.

      Move along...

      April 5, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  20. Joe

    The war has going on for 10 years with no clear strategy for victory, now the leadership wants our women to dress like the enemy, while here at home they're going to try and stop the public from speaking bad about the enemy. Sounds like a clear strategy for appeasement and defeat to me. The only risk I see to American troops currently deployed is their leadership.

    April 5, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • elnyka

      1) The are not being dressed like the enemy, they using a piece of garment used by the local population. Maybe it is hard to understand to you, so I'll slow it down to you. Not everyone with a scarf is the enemy, wearing a scarf is not a sign of allegiance to the Taliban, and not every single person in Afghanistan is the enemy. I know it is hard to understand the world in generalizing terms that are not black and white, but still man...

      2) The Army is not dictating their women soldiers to do so. They chose to as they see it as a way to identify to the local culture (and with women of that culture who need their help the most). Are you pretending now to tell these women warriors (our women warriors) what's best for them in that war theater?

      3) Just because you think it is a policy of appeasement and defeat, that does not make it so. Newsflash, opinion != fact. Now if you think that every single person in Afghanistan, be it man or woman, is the enemy, then maybe you might have a point in that this would be a policy of appeasement and defeat, but guess what? That's not the case.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:02 am |
    • gunther

      First off Joe, they arent OUR women, you sound just like the folks over there, like women are property. However I do think its insane that they even have the choice to wear anything to cover themselves. In my eyes doing so is saying it is OK to for women to be treated that way, we are only condoning what they are doing. The female soldiers should still dress like soldiers and keep their military bearing.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • hayfield

      You are so right.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • WAKE UP PEOPLE

      These are SOLDIERS not freaking muslims. This military leadership is insane. Appeasement does not work. Maybe we should be concentrating on winning the War instead of being Politically Correct to the damned muslims after all, they are the Enemy.

      April 5, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • 9/11

      Our male soldiers should grow BEARDS to show respect? While we are at it let us change our FLAG for respect. Maybe we need to REDIFINE respect. I don.t think so!!!!

      April 5, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Veritas

      Gunther, the female soldiers are still maintaining their military bearing, they are in full battle rattle until (and only when) they are in a secure area with a female audience. They then engage in a friendly conversation and reap huge information gains that saves tons of soldier's lives. They conclude, suit back up and head back out on the patrol like any other soldier. If you are against making a small gesture to reap huge gains from our allies then we should leave Afghanistan and let it go back to the Taliban so they can again let Al Qaeda train there to attack us on our soil while torturing their own people.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • Gigel

      That's nothing. The women serving in the US armed forces should start wearing the burqa. Why stop at the headscarf? In 10-20 years the US will become a muslim country and the women might as well get used to what's going to become the norm in the land of those who used to be free...

      April 5, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • YouAreSoDumb

      The MUSLIMS are the enemy???

      All muslims? You dumb a$$... Just because our enemy happens to be Muslims doesn't mean all Muslims are our enemy.

      Freakin morons. It's NOT political correctness. It's courtesy and respect which some of my fellow Americans don't seem to understand.

      How's this for an idea? Go join the military and actually serve this country. THEN you can have an opinion. Until then STFU!!!

      April 5, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • Karen

      The US Army military uniform does not have a headscarf option. These women are soldiers – period. They should wear the soldiers uniform just like the men. Our military is there ti do a job. The are not there to be a local citizen. Even though we are there in their country soldier are soldiers – military is military. I do not think our military, our journelists or our diplomats should have to adhere to local customs. We are Americans and as such our dress should not be dictated to. Personally I would not even go to a country that would make me cover my head.

      April 5, 2011 at 8:00 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.