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. MichigIndian

    As a former female soldier, I do not condone the headscarf as an option with the ACU. Female soldiers are SOLDIERS. If a country is happy to accept a woman picking up a rifle to defend their sorry asks, then they should keep their mouths shut about what that woman is wearing. I also look forward to the day when male and female dress uniforms will be more similar; the skirt in any form should be abolished. I am speaking as a female who had more than one Class A inspection outside in freezing weather. The guys were able to slip a pair of long johns under their slacks, while females were out there in pantyhose. BTW, it was the CSM's call as to what the female uniform would be each day. It made me so angry that we had to be out there like that just because some old guy liked to see a little leg.

    May 3, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  2. Doug

    I would absolutely bar my soldiers from wearing the hijab. It's inappropriate. When other nations come to our country we don't ask them to change, culturally, who they are. It should be no different over there.

    April 10, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  3. RightTurnClyde

    This is one of many reasons why women should not be full status members of a military service. OK for Wac or Wave type hings, but in combat units they need too many exceptions to be considered true warriors. There is no question they cause contention among men, need special privileges for their differences, cannot be counted on for 100% of anything, have not show great elan for command nor inclination toward fidelity to duty. Maybe it is socially stylish but as a military member they do not cut it (in any rank or in any service - even the Coast Guard by golly)

    April 9, 2011 at 2:35 am |
  4. Amina

    It is a nice gesture, and yes, if it is worn it should match the uniform. What is most important is that the female soldiers understand the REASON for wearing hijab: Modesty. It is not just wearing the scarf over the hair and neck, it is also the way one acts and carries themselves. If one of my coworkers came in wearing a scarf over her head claiming that she was trying to get a better understanding of what is is like to be a Muslim woman, I would politely tell her that she is going about it the wrong way and that the hijab is only the outer display of iman (faith).

    April 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  5. bobby

    military uniforms are designed to give the wearer the greatest possible advantage in combat situations.

    head scarves may compromise that advantage and expose the wearer to unnecessary risks.

    April 8, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  6. rtmin

    I am speechless... ok maybe not. All this shows is a respect for a way of life that has no respect for our way of life. Want to get the Taliban on the run... send out our ladies in their bikinis!

    April 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • John

      hahaha...They should try it.

      April 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • diddly poo

      Perhaps thats what distinguishes Americans from certain other nations that don't pride themselves on the things Americans do (i.e. respect, freedom to practice your own beliefs, etc) although the recent fear mongering and bias propaganda is doing it's best to change the root of the American value system, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.... And as for your assumption that muslims don't respect our way of life, it's exactly that: an assumption. There are many MANY muslim-americans that have assimilated willingly and happily, some of which you probably wouldn't even think are muslim because the picture you seem to have painted in your head of what a muslim looks like/acts like tells you something different. Generalizations make people sound ridiculous.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  7. Citizen Soldier

    This is an absolute failure in leadership by embracement of a religion. It is an insult to the American female warrior. It is a denial of religious freedom to the American soliders, sailors, airmen and Marines. Time to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. At $4.00/gallon for gasoline, we do not need the middle east, they need us. The correct solution would have been ALL soldiers put on head scarves of some form.

    April 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  8. Jon

    Why is my post not let through yet their is not a single offensive non common sense statement in that entire post.

    April 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  9. Roman

    "When in Rome...."

    If you visit someone else's home, it is only common courtesy that you observe and respect their house rules/regulations.
    Same applies when traveling abroad, for work (military) or leisure. You want to show that you respect their customs and traditions. Sure, back home, you might do things differently but you have to consider that not everyone everywhere follows these exact same traditions. And so to that end, I will say that it is rather ignorant and disrespectful to walk in a foreign land and expect locals to bend to your will. You are in their home, you should at least respect their way of life and not force yours upon them.

    April 7, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • wyciwyg

      EXACTLY!! SO why do muslims demand exceptions when living or visiting other nations? why do they not assimilate when living in other nations?

      April 11, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • hannah

      Speaking of 'when in Rome'... Is there this uproar when Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or Laura Bush cover their hair to meet the Pope?

      April 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  10. Brandon

    Hey McSally,

    You were a second class fighter pilot. After all you... well you know.

    April 7, 2011 at 3:38 am |
  11. Cheryl

    Klimchuck -
    Afghans aren't Arabs. If you're looking for Arabs, you need to look about 1400 miles west of Kabul

    April 6, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  12. LKJ

    Wearing a headscarf does not make a woman a second-class citizen. Are people saying that the only thing of value for a woman is her hair? I have been a Muslim for over thirty years and have worn a headscarf for nearly that long. During that time I also earned my Ph.D., delivered numerous papers, and authored several books. Contrary to popular opinion, the scarf does not squeeze out our brains.

    April 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  13. shelbydawkins

    that picture makes me want to puke

    April 6, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  14. Frederica

    I think the female soldier on picture is wearing too bright colored headscarf...

    April 6, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  15. Thomas Klimchuk

    This is whats wrong Policial correctness gone wrong If the muslums are upset with woman not covering their heads so what they are not of your faith God what are they going to do take you to court I am a Canadian and i don t think we should be there these arabs are nothing more then animals

    April 6, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • Susan A.

      Thomas, Afghans are not Arabs. Iraqis are Arabs but since many of those women did not wear the hijab before 2003 female soldiers don't feel the need to wear it in that country. I didn't don a head scarf when I served in Iraq. Ironically, I later married an Iraqi while still in the military. Though I got out of the Army in 2009, he does not make me wear one (not that he could without me kicking his butt). Also, his sisters who now live in Australia do not cover their hair. They have chosen to adapt to the culture they now live in despite their still being Muslim. Conforming to other cultures, both ways, does happen despite belief to the contrary. You just don't see it because if a Muslim woman choses not to wear the headscarf, you just assume they are not Muslim.

      April 6, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  16. John Richardson

    I'm more worried about soldiers who choose to spend their free time playing on swings.

    April 6, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  17. Cheryl


    You are dead on when you highlight the double standard. I'm currently serving in AFG and can vouch that no one considers it a big contraversy when men in SOF or Civil Affairs or intelligence "go native". It is an expected part of the job. But when a woman who similarly works "outside the wire" with Afghan counterparts does the same, she's portrayed by many as "pandering", etc....

    Concerning the multiple references I've seen to Army dress and appearance standards - folks are partially misinformed. Sure, if you're serving with the 101st or some other purely Army unit, then Army standards apply. But that scenario hardly applies to all of AFG. For example, I work at ISAF, a coalition and joint command, so no, Army unform standards to not apply here unless you're in the US Army. There are standards that are specific to the command (ISAF) and then standards that each service enforces for US personnel.

    On a final note, I'd caution that there may be a hidden motive to McSally's op-ed. Although on the surface her op-ed would seem to champion women's rights, in reality she seems to be very ill-informed about Afghanistan and its women, writing "In Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, the world saw the hallmark of Taliban oppression – women who failed to cover up risked death" Actually, if one was paying attention, the Taliban's oppression of women was noticed by the int'l community (IC) long before 2001. Not by McSally perhaps, but by the IC definitely. I suspect that McSally's motivations have less to do with the women of Afghanistan or women's rights than her personal crusade to stamp out any trace of the feminine in the Armed Services. Reference her article for the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy in which she advocates that military commanders should have a prominent role in the family planning decisions of female service members, that "differences in uniforms only accentuates our differences" and as such we need to all have "gender neutral" uniforms, that "there is no place for high heels, pantyhose, and skirts above the knee" and that the female mess dress uniform should be done away with because it comes in the form of a skirt." I think this is more the heart of what bothers Col McSally - that a scarf, like skirts or uniform shirts that are actually cut to accomodate for the fact that a woman's chest is different than man's, have no place in the service if they highlight the obvious – that women are in fact not men. It would seem that Col McSally has an issue with this. Very disheartening to think that one of the women being lauded as a leading feminist apparently feels that female servicemembers have to look like men to be accepted in a "man's world", vice simply being accepted equally for what they are – women.

    April 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Cheryl W.

      Well said!

      April 6, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Susan A.

      Cheryl, I must concur with everything you said. Your statements were well thought out and proved you are informed on the matter. McSally certainly appears to have her own agenda. I was never a big fan of the skirt in the dress uniform, but also recognize that the military is not trying to take our gender from us. Why this retired Air Force woman should have any say in what Army women do is beyond me. The two branches have entirely different mission objectives. She should not be a spokesperson for all female military.

      April 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Jack

      A female Lt. Col friend of mine knew Sally – and knew her to be a complete and thorough nut-job. The only reason people listen to her is that she'll club them with her lawyer if they don't. She's a lot like the Westboro Baptist Church folks – she's able to use the law to perpetrate her own agenda on the world regardless of what's best for women, the service, our allies, or America.

      April 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  18. Lanfear

    I don't see a problem with it... but why does she have to wear bright pink with her uniform? Surely they can have some type of color regulation so they don't stick out like a sore thumb.

    April 5, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Damodred

      I agree, I always thought it was ridiculous to see airmen/soldiers/sailors with leg injuries (and thus unable to wear their boots) walk around in bright red Jordans or the like. There is no reason that the integrity of the uniform needs to be compromised. A conservative color that goes with the uniform would be appropriate. Also, nice name 🙂

      April 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Brandon

      Pink Garment w/ACU's = sticking out like a sore thumb in afghan.

      ACU Garment w/ACU's = sticking out like a sore thumb in afghan.

      If she's in a village either way she'd stick out like a sore thumb.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:42 am |
  19. Jim

    Oh...and yes...Muslim men in the US military are allowed to wear their Kufi as a head covering as long as it doesn't interfere with their job.

    One of my troops wears it under his regular cover.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • DebG

      There's one thing about doing it voluntarily, but if it interferes with a soldier's ability to hear or move their heads, that's a problem. I totally disagree with women wearing these, though. We should show Muslims what it's like for women in a free country. What the heck are we doing in this backward-ass part of the world anyway? Screw em!

      April 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • KKB

      No Deb, screw YOU! What ARE you doing in that backward asss country. Don't you have enough good things in your home that you bomb brick and mud huts and families of people who don't even want to know you to begin with?

      April 11, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • hannah

      DebG, there are probably hundreds of millions of women who wear scarves in their heads (including me), and we're perfectly able to move our heads and hear! We do all kinds of jobs... and we live in free countries. (I've also been in the U.S. military – and the situation of military women is not something to brag about. Not many hijab-wearing women would trade places with them.) Look at the scarf in the photo – do you think it blocks her hearing? Especially as compared to a military helmet, for example?

      April 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  20. Jim

    What's funny is that you condemn the women for trying to blend in and associate with the Afghan women but you fail to do the same for the SOF forces that grown beards and wear tradition Afghan clothes to relate to the Afghan men.

    If you can, please explain the difference

    April 5, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Jack

      The difference is something called "the feminist movement." Inherent within the name is its lack of rationality. They have a "cause" and no number of dead bodies will stop them from pursuing their goals.

      April 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Kelly

      SOF grow their beards out and wear afghan clothing because they are supposed to blend in. Not stick out like a sore thumb. By dressing like the Afghans they can blend, and they can gain comradeship with the native fighters.

      April 8, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • AD

      No difference, but SOF wearing beards and local clothes has been very controversial as well. This has been both encouraged and forbidden at different times over the last decade. If a female soldier needs to interact with local women and wants to make them feel comfortable, they should be allowed to wear a headscarf, just like the SOF guys need to be allowed to go local and grow beards and dress like a native. It is part of the job.

      April 11, 2011 at 12:56 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.