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. bobo

    if wearing a headscarf helps you to "accomplish" your mission/have the women open up to you and they will leak info..
    then why not have the men dress like the men of that culture and grow beards...why wear any sort of uniform or approach these women while wearing fatiques/camos and guns.
    I mean if anyone rolled up to me with a gun...I don't care if they are in a headscarf, the chances are that I am not gonna talk with them

    April 5, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  2. Brendan

    But American military women do interact with afghan men and dont wear scarves while doing it.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Medardus

      It's a choice.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  3. Desiree

    As a former Army medic, I would have definately covered my head if it meant making the women more comfortable. It does not make female soldiers 'second-class warriors'. If it helps accomplish the mission, then so be it. If the difference between someone confessing the location of a terrorist hiding in the village or location of a hidden cache of weapons is easing relations by adopting some local customs, then no one should be raising a fuss. Just keep writing BS articles and be glad you're not the ones risking life and limb protecting America.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  4. nick2

    Well I guess the lines are drawn between the bigots with the fearful – against bravery and respect.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  5. Ed

    But a head scarf will not stop a bullet. If a Female soldier wants to cover her head then she should do so with a helmet. Otherwise, she is out of uniform and needlessly endangering her own life.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • SGTbadd

      Read the STORY. it plainly said that they wear it under the helmet. helmets and body armor are REQUIRED over there. Join the Army and you too can know how this works. If not. Shut the fack up.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:48 am |
    • Desiree

      Seriously, do you not know how many soldiers, male and female who do not follow uniform regualtions while deployed? I don't think in a combat zone it's really a huge concern. And yeah, there are many occasions where soldiers do not wear their helmets outside the wire. Sometimes you just have to take the risk, like when medics administer medical care to locals as a gesture of goodwill, it's hard to look like you're there to help when you look like you're ready to start fighting.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Cheryl


      I think you misunderstand ops here in AFG. Not all soldiers wear full kit when interacting with Afghans. I'm currently deployed to AFG and can tell you that for some situations I've worn full "battle rattle" – body armor, kevlar, long rifle, etc... and for others I've been in civilian clothing, headscarf with concealed sidearm (no armor, no kevlar, no IFAK, etc....). The point is that rules for what we wear here in theater vary depending upon your unit, the particular mission you're supporting.

      If you want to be concerned about dress and appearance here in theater, you'd be better to protest the fact that many bases or FOBs require the wearing of a reflective belt after dark - making the perfect target for insurgents. Completely stupid.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  6. 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 7:44 am |
  7. mikger

    so, is this Ret. COL also going after the rules that allow Beards or head scarfs of the male soldiers in the Army for certain religions? Its their freely adopted views and desires, just like the female soldiers down range, freely willing to wear these scarves. If anything, it seems the scarves being worn are more important at maintaining a level of thoughtfulness to the locals. Guess she likes the "our way or the highway" mentality that ostracizes us so often....

    April 5, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  8. CavCountry

    One, I wouldn't give too much credence to any pilot's comments on ground operations, they have no experience with foot patrols.
    If soldiers choose to wear the head scarf to help them accomplish the mission of gaining and building trust with the local villagers in Afganistan, leave them alone, the job is tough enough without this type of rhetoric. Trust me in our culture it's just a piece of cloth, as soon as they are back on the base it's no where to be seen. Having served in Iraq training and guiding the Iraqi Army, a little knowledge and respect for the culture you're in the middle of can go a long way in ensuring your survival.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  9. bobo

    wow I wonder if they will include this in the new army recruitment ad...be an army of one..travel and see the world and oh yeah..if your a woman...here is a pretty headscarf for you to donn and be treated as a second classed citizen in their male dominated society...come feel what it is like to be a man's actual property devote of rights like driving/voting/ownership of land
    OHHHH FYi wearing of the headscarf isn't "mandated" by the army...it's your "choice" wink wink..
    they just thought the female solider would enjoy blending in with the local population and adding a bit of color to those drag camos. The army doesn't require the headscarf the same way it doesn't suggest other customs like removing sunglasses/gloves while meeting locals...it's your "choice" wink wink..

    So all you females come on down and sign up to liberate a country when women don't matter...sure we will free then from the evil dictator ( as long as they are an oil rich nation) yet we won't instill our values on them and free the women from male dictatorship..
    and if you act right now..we will throw in an attractive headscrarf for free.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • HZ

      Removing sunglasses and gloves actually is a choice. I've never seen that forced upon someone. However, if you don't remove them, the locals won't talk to you so what's the point of being there just to be a brash American. In some places that works, in Afghanistan it doesn't. I assume you speak from experience serving in the military. I mean, how else can a person speak intelligently on the matter if they haven't. I've never seen a military member raise a stink about the headscarf, sunglasses or gloves when dealing with Afghans. In other countries it's not a big deal, but there it is. Especially in the rural areas, they're not familiar with any other culture besides the same one their families have been a part of for centuries. So what can it hurt to show we understand? After all, we're Americans. Aren't we supposed to be "big" enough to bend and see the benefits of compromise and cultural respect even when others don't?

      April 5, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  10. Karla

    I'm pleasantly surprised that our army would be so considerate of local customs of a country they've invaded. Nice.

    It's a scarf, people. A piece of fabric. If it makes it easier for the female soldiers to do their job, and it's their choice to do so, so what?

    April 5, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Ed

      You are right, it's a piece of cloth, that will NOT stop a bullet. She is endangering her life just to be PC? A combat helmet covers her head very well.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Medardus


      They wear the scarf under the helmet. Guess you missed that part of the article.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  11. Mike

    It is totally inappropriate for US military uniform to be compromised in anyway but especially by conforming to a medieval, female debasing practice of a religion.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Medardus

      You realize, of course, that wearing a hijab or even a burqa is not required by the Qu'ran but is actually a cultural tradition right?

      When in Rome, you do as the Romans do.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Mike

      Medardus ... When in Rome? So the US military should have a large assortment of alternative uniform extras for each culture? That is ludicrous.

      If this is ok for females, why don't male soldiers for the US have turbans or head scarves to wear when in the countries where men wear those? Come on, this is the US caving into the religious practice demeaning of women. We have been guilty of that in the US for centuries but by now in 2011 I think the US is ready to have 100% equality for our females.

      If we ever have troops in Iran will you be calling for them to cover their faces? How about when in Saudi Arabia, can our female soldiers drive?

      April 5, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • Mike

      THis is what we are basically giving into:

      In Srinagar, India in 2001 an "acid attack on four young Muslim women ... by an unknown militant outfit [was followed by] swift compliance by women of all ages on the issue of wearing the chadar (head-dress) in public."[34][35][36]
      In Basra, Iraq, "more than 100 women who didn't adhere to strict Islamic dress code" were killed between the summer of 2007 and spring of 2008 by Islamist militias (primarily the Mahdi Army) who controlled the police there, according to the CBS news program 60 Minutes.[37]
      Islamists in other countries have been accused of attacking or threatening to attack the faces of women in an effort to intimidate them from wearing of makeup or allegedly immodest dress.[38][39][40]

      April 5, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • Susan A.

      So Mike, what were all those Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan doing that we clearly saw on the news wearing turbans, long beards and native garb? Many of those American men did it and no one complained about them being forced to acclimate to the culture. Why is it you want to rob female soldiers of this priveledge while allowing the men to do it?

      April 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  12. Mark

    Same as speaking arabic or Farsi to the locals. Do what needs to be done. We don't like killing, either, but we do it if it helps us accomplish the mission.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  13. KC

    It's not mandatory for one. I consider it a sign of respect for their culture. Who are we to force our beliefs and ways of life onto another country? For those who like to "blame" Obama and call the military leaders ignorant: Get over yourself! You obviously have no respect for anyone or anything that is not in your little world view.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Mike

      I am a supporter of our President. I do not however agree with any changes to our military uniforms or appearance to appease the religious beliefs of another country...period.

      If it were normal for men in a particular culture to have long beards or pigtails would US male soldiers be encouraged to conform when there? I don't thinks so. This is a typical male insult to women making the US no better than the countries we decry for treating women as second class citizens.

      I applaud Martha McSally and hope she fights this all the way.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  14. Louis

    Below is directly from the article.

    ""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."

    Bull Pucky! That's Bull Pucky with a big Bull. "Those female service members ... do so as a personal choice," Adm. Mike Mullen wrote" The female service members are told what their personal choice will be. Follow orders or you will have a problem. These women should not be required to wear a headscarf while serving in any country. The military uniform includes a hat, weat it!

    April 5, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • LEB

      They aren't required. It said many women, not all wear the headscarves when interacting with locals.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • HZ

      In some places, it's highly encouraged while in others it's a choice. Regardless, it's not our country or our culture and the only way to win these people over is to show we resepct them and their culture whether a person actually does or not. If they believe we actually care, we get a lot further. If the hardest thing we have to do is put on a headscarf, then so be it. I didn't have problem with it and I'm a practicing Christian. It's about respect.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  15. Hawkeye

    Our military leaders are clueless male idiots!

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

      You did read that those "idiots" were not commanding anybody to wear a headscarf. It was a choice by the women.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  16. USMC E7

    Must be an Army thing. I can say for a fact that the female Marines down in Southern Afghanistan ARE NOT wearing headscarves.

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

      Yea both of em.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  17. Michael

    Many successful armies throughout history have honored the customs of the lands they conquered. Alexander was the most notable. Although it earned him the ire of his top generals and veterans, it helped him to bring Afghanistan under control. To my knowledge, nobody else has successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  18. R. Frech

    we truly going in Harms Way – Head scarfs for our troops.
    thank you Mr. Obama

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

      I'm so glad you have the initials "RET" next to your name...because if you were still Active Duty, our military would be in deeper crap than they are now. How the hell is female military members VOLUNTARILY wearing headscarves in any way President Obama's fault? Jesus, you are a stupid human being.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • bob the builder

      I find this disgusting..do those people bother returning the same courtesy while here? heck no..we just keep bending over and taking it over and over..I am so ashamed to be an american right now..I despise the crap hole this country is becoming. Why can't we grow a pair and stand on our own instead of befriending every garbage government we come across? If you vote for Obama again it will just be more of the same..we might as well just call ourselves the United States of Sheep.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • Norm Autrey

      This has nothing to do with President Obama. These policies have been in place in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries where female US troops have been stationed since at least the first gulf war, where I may add it was George Herbert Walker Bush who was President. This is no mandate from our civilian government, but an attempt by the military to get the job done in a difficult situation. My observation is that you are not only a hater of our President, but most likely a hater of women in the military and unwilling to face the truth that the world will move on with or without your predudices.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:52 am |
  19. radsi0j0hn

    But God help you if you put up any Christmas decorations in December. Can we make a list of all the things that "offend" Muslims??? Get the hell out of those countries and give them a few more centuries to catch up with the rest of the world. Where is the Muslim Martin Luther? (Probably beheaded)

    April 5, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • Hiba

      You're wrong, my friend. In Chrsitmas, most department stores in the UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon decorate with Christmas trees. I only speak out of experience, as I have been there. Believe me, it's not all camels and sand that soe would lead you to believe. If people only gave us a chance and looked at us without the bias that the media has planted in them, you'll find that most of us are friendly, happy people who give birth and die, work and laugh, love and hate, just like you.

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

      Christmas trees aren't Christian symbols.

      If it's voluntary, it can help win some hearts and minds. Maybe. Then again who knows what the truth is if you aren't there. Considering the state of this administration, anything is possible.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • DeAguaDulce


      I can tell you from experience too, that the UAE is considered apostate by many Arabs fro catering to the West. Lebabnon has a population that is one third Christian, so your argumant is entirely moot. Radis0j0hn is correct; there is no limit to what offends Muslims. You cannot fight a pc war. In my experience, cowing to their demands only makes them more demanding.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:30 am |
    • richunix

      Hiba: Based on your coment, then muslim would careless if I drew a picture of Mohammand thenand hung it outside my door?

      April 5, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • Susan A.

      Actually, as a soldier who served in Iraq, I know we put up Christmas trees all over the base. Even the Iraqi interpreters break room had two trees. I have also been told that prior to the invasion, some Muslims would put up trees and lights in their homes during the holiday. Unless you have been to these middle eastern countries don't act like you know anything because all it does is show your gross ignorance. Saudi and Afghanistan are the extreme versions of Muslim countries. I don't agree with their rigid laws, but you should not assume all 22 Arab countries are like that. Anyone who has traveled to the Middle East and visited places like Jordan and Syria can vouch that women can pretty much dress how they want. Yes, it is a bit more conservative than most Americans, but I had no problem wearing jeans and a slim t-shirt while walking around in Damascus and Amman. In fact, I had women asking me where I got my Jeans from. They were disappointed when I said Gap because they didn't have that store there.

      April 6, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  20. Sagebrush Shorty

    Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

    April 5, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • Ovais Bajwa

      If wearing head scarf makes to female silders second class, then lets updgrade all the second class christian nuns and have them remove their head scarf.

      April 5, 2011 at 7:59 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.