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. SJB

    How dare an American soldier show respect in a foreign land!

    April 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  2. rob m

    Good discussion with valid points on both sides... As a reservist, I also have played in the sand box. I think that the women should wear black ski masks like the people that rob my local 7-11. It is a little "burka-esque" but they would also look more menacing especially while muzzle-f***ing a rag-head wearing a man dress.

    April 5, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  3. nothappywCNN

    If the culture of a country we were defending was that the men wear skirts, would the military command "suggest" or "allow" that our male soldiers try to blend in and wear skirts too? Of course not. This is a double standard plain and simple.

    April 5, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  4. Michael

    Thought we were spreading democracy not subjecting our citizens to wearing clothing that marks them as a second class citizen in Islamic beliefs.

    April 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  5. JonathanL

    It must be a girl thing. It is fine to make friendly token gestures. Maybe they will open up more to our culture. But I wonder will they next encourage our men to wear turbans?

    April 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  6. Rolf Wittwer

    For our western clivilisation it becomes day-by-day more frightening, to see how Islam is dumping us down and trying to take over the world with its backward-orientated intolerant and violent strategy.
    Do we have to accept all of this?

    April 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  7. Margroks

    First of all-when was the last time you saw a guy take off his hat indoors here? Guys virtually NEVER remove hats inside these days.

    When we helped the Kuwaitis and the Saudis during the first Gulf war we were PROMISED that they would enact civil reform for women. Never happened. Suddenly our women soldiers are expected to conform to their standards for women-and it doesn't get much more repressive than that-because we need their help to capture Osama and other terrorists. Women soldiers were sold out on that one. The very idea that a woman who can do anything here cannot even DRIVE herself somewhere and has to sit in the BACK SEAT while a man drives her somewhere at risk of having the "religious police" which is just another word for religious terrorists, terrorize ehr is outrageous. This goes WAY WAY beyond culteral sensitivity. It's repression, religious and personal, pure and simple. It interferes with military discipline and good order to expect or even allow female soldiers to alter their uniforms under the guise of culteral sensitivity.

    The Saudis need to rein in the religious police-a concept which would be outlawed here, to be sure. American soldiers should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve wherever they serve and making women second class citizens and soldiers is not serving that goal.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Varangian

      I don't wear hats in doors and I can honestly say that I don't know anyone who does.

      Honestly, is it really that terrible that they wear scarves over there? The article implies that the whole situation is based on choice so if it's chilly out there, can they "choose" to wear a scarf then?

      April 5, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  8. Suzanne

    This practice is no more degrading than the social custom that prohibits men from wearing hats in buildings.

    It's a social custom.

    April 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  9. Nonimus

    It is my understanding that US soldiers in other countries are expected/obligated to follow the laws of that country.
    Is that still true when on duty and in uniform? I'm not sure.

    April 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Victorious Victer

      Because even though they are barbarians, the weapons they've acquired from our government is pretty modern. With their view that killing, pain and suffering is a great way to concert non Muslims, they won't stop with the bloodshed. We can try education to try to teach them the Koran is nothing more then fictional fairy tales but that wouldn't be easy when the majority of Americans belive in the fictional fairy tales of the Bible.

      April 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Greg

    Why don't we leave this country and let the people live their Stone Age way of life.

    April 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Greg

    You got to be kidding me!

    April 5, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  12. Deb

    "F" the courtesy gesture. The women over there that are Afghanistan citizens shouldn't have to wear the scarves. I'd be damned, if I were a woman over there, that I'd wear one even if I were a citizen of that backwards nation.

    April 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  13. JonathanL

    I guess,,,As long as they don't have to wear burkas and are still allowed to have jobs and go to school.

    April 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  14. john

    This is a issue because a lot americans never leave the US plain and simple. If people would leave the comfort of the US and see just what is going on then they would have a better understanding of that part of the world. Remember only 3% of people are serving in the Armed Services.

    April 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  15. Methusalem

    Camille Eid, a professor at the University of Milan, describes the persecution Christians endure in Saudi Arabia. Eid, who has lived in Jeddah– the nation’s second-largest city– told the television program “Where God Weeps” that

    it is hard to be a lay Catholic in Saudi Arabia because you have to have a very deep background in your faith. You cannot have copies of the Gospel in your home. You cannot have a rosary. You cannot have contact with your Christian friends as a community; you can have Christian friends, you can frequent the foreign communities but you are prohibited from talking about your faith … In other Islamic countries Friday is a holiday so Mass as a community [is allowed], but not on Sunday because Sunday is considered a working day; but even this is not the case in Saudi Arabia.

    “We have a case of the martyrdom of a Saudi girl who converted to Christianity,” Eid adds. “Her brother discovered her. She wrote a poem to Christ and she had her tongue cut, she disappeared and was later found dead. Her name was Fatima Al-Mutairi and this happened in August of 2008. In 2008 two cases of raids by the religious police saw men, women and children less than three years old arrested. We have many reports of torture.”

    April 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • holycow

      Other than the fact that the article and your post are both related to Muslim countries, is there really a more substantial link?

      April 5, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  16. norcalmojo

    The Taliban won.

    April 5, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  17. Frank

    The comments on this article are surpassed in arrogance only by the egocentrism displayed by the writers. As a currently deployed member of the armed forces and one that has previously served overseas, I understand that when you represent the United States around the world you need to understand the culture around you. Not only to make you less of a target but also to communicate to the people of that area that there is a level of mutual respect and dignity. Until we as a country can understand that ideological differences can't be solved by being louder or stronger or with bullets/bombs we will continue to diminish ourselves as a world power.

    April 5, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Marcello

      Well said. Thank you for your comment, and thank you for your service to our country.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Beardog

      As a former member of the US Military, who served over seas for a total of 7 years, I wonder where the "mutual respect" comes in when it is always our people who have to modify their behavior.
      Are male soldiers allowed to grow beards?
      Are Muslim women who accompany their husbands to training at American bases allowed to dress western?
      Remember; a one way street only goes one way.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • RespectUS

      How about the locals’ show us some respect and not expect our solders to take up there culture because we have our own! We are the ones sending our sons and daughters to help and protect them. Do you think if there solders came here they would stop some of their cultural activates because we don’t like them…..No way!

      April 5, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • holycow


      April 5, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • nothappywCNN

      Sir, thank you very much for your service and for taking the time to leave such a measured and reasonable reply. However, I must disagree with you. When I saw that photo in the Washington Post of the three female US soldiers walking in the Afghanistan village without their helmets I cringed. It immediately made me wonder how command could allow them to not protect their heads from snipers. The first duty of our military is to protect our soldiers and give them the best armor, guns, tanks and helmets. Why are these women not given the same protection as their male colleagues? I understand trying to uphold the Afgan customs, but these are warriors first and foremost and deserve to be treated the same way as the men in their units.

      April 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  18. citizenUSA

    Oh yeah? Then when female Afghan soldiers come to the U. S. they have to wear string bikinis. Wait! I take it back. The image just went through my head.

    April 5, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Deb

      LOL, funny. You are right . . uck . . white, pasty skin.

      April 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  19. Mick Lee

    And yet Jews aren't allowed to wear their head covering?

    April 5, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  20. czechhawk

    I am wondering a few things. Does this order contrevene Army Regulation 670–1? Also, for those who think it's appropriate, I wonder what would be said if the same female soldiers were State side and wore this scarf? To cite some of your arguements, It would facilitate their job to some extent? Well, approx. 5% of Americans follow Islam. Wonder however, what the the rest of the population would say? It can't be one way there and another here. Uniformity is important in the military. It allows our soldiers to not be singled out by the enemy for retaliation.

    April 5, 2011 at 8:11 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.