In an effort to get closer to the local population, American female soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are being encouraged to wear a Muslim headscarf when interacting with civilians. But some question whether the practice constitutes cultural sensitivity or a form of appeasement that is degrading to U.S. soldiers.
Major Kyndra Rotunda, executive director of the Military Law and Policy Institute and AMVETS Legal Clinic at Chapman University, told The Daily Caller that while the women are not being ordered to wear the head scarf, encouragement is tantamount to a demand.
“They say they are encouraging women to wear the headscarf when they are out and about and on patrol. But the problem is — and I think anyone who has been in the military understands that being encouraged to do something is about the same thing as being ordered — it really puts them in an uncomfortable position when their commander says, ‘We really want you to do this, technically you don’t have to, but we really want you to do this,’” she said.
Lt. Col. Michael Lawhorn, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, stressed to TheDC that while commanders are encouraging American women to wear headscarves while engaging with civilians, they are not having them wear the headscarf in lieu of their kevlar helmets.
“Nobody is saying, ‘Okay as we head out onto this dangerous street, you wear a hijab instead of your kevlar helmet,’” Lawhorn said. “As women are on some of these engagement teams and they are going to go into places where are going to predominantly be dealing with other women, like giving them medical information or finding out their concerns are in the local community. Local commanders are encouraging them — not demanding, but encouraging — if they feel more comfortable — ‘Feel free to wear a headscarf.’”
Rotunda remained unconvinced, telling TheDC that helmets are always the preferred head wear among soldiers.
“Even if it is outreach, you never know what to expect. You really should be wearing your kevlar helmet, it is a safety issue,” she said.
Retired Col. Martha McSally, whose grievance about being forced to wear the Muslim abaya while stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s resulted in 2002 legislation outlawing the practice of making female soldiers wear Muslim religious garb in Saudi Arabia, told The Daily Caller that the sanctity of the uniform should not be sullied with outside accessories like the hijab.
“Another thing that makes this inappropriate is that they are wearing it with their uniform,” she said. “All the services have several-hundred-page regulations about what is appropriate and is not appropriate to wear with the uniform, and we have very strict guidelines … You are representing the United States government. You are wearing the U.S. military uniform, and it confuses what you are representing when you add this to the uniform.”
In mid-February one of the sponsors of the 2002 legislation that outlawed the practice of making female soldiers in Saudi Arabia wear the abaya, Rhode Island Democratic Rep. James Langevin, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting more information about soldiers in headscarves.
“I understand the mission in Afghanistan is drastically different than the situation our female troops faced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 10 years ago,” Langevin wrote. “However I am interested to know the precise policies or operating instructions that are currently being employed with regard to the garments worn by female service members in Afghanistan and other Muslim nations.”
Langevin continues to wait for a response.
Female service members are not the only ones concerned. Retired Navy SEAL Scott Taylor told TheDC that he has been troubled by reports of women wearing the headscarves with their uniforms.
“I am completely oppose appeasement to a culture rather than respecting it,” Taylor wrote in an email. “My personal Middle Eastern experience in a very conservative country has taught me that Muslims can feel respected without submitting to an impersonation of their culture. There is little or nothing gained by an American woman in a Hijab, in what is deemed by some as cultural sensitivity. Women in Female Engagement Teams can successfully complete their stated mission without utilization of the Hijab. Encouraging (which coming from leaders is basically an order within the military) this approach is against what the American soldier in uniform stands for. Soldiers operating covertly are a different story.”
Colonel Martha McSally is hopeful that the experience she had in Saudi Arabia being forced to wear the abaya will not be repeated in Afghanistan with the hijab.
“I am a civilian now, I retired from the Air Force, these things will not apply to me, so there is no personal connection in that sense. But as an American and someone who went through this with the abaya … I feel on principle, for the same reason the abaya was wrong, this is wrong,” she said. “It is important to be sensitive to the local culture in any mission, and understand the culture but this is not about shaking with your left hand or showing the bottom of your feet … this symbolizes that women have a lower status than men.”
Major Rotunda is hopeful that Congress will get involved to ensure that female soldiers are no longer pressured to comply.
“It is clearly within Congress’s realm to pass another provision like what they passed in 2002,” she said. “If the military on its own doesn’t stop this nonsense.”