The Pentagon responded to Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin’s concerns about female soldiers being encouraged to wear the hijab while serving in Afghanistan Thursday evening.
The letter, penned by U.S. Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, said the military is not directing or requiring female soldiers to wear the headscarf, but instead giving them option of wearing one with their uniform if they deem it appropriate.
“The general consensus among female Service members working with the local population in Afghanistan is that they should have the flexibility to wear a head scarf if they, along with their command, determine the mission or their safety are enhanced by it, as long as it is a personal choice,” Mullen wrote, adding that in some Afghan regions female soldiers have been prohibited from wearing headscarves.
Col. Martha McSally, whose frustration about being made to wear the Muslim abaya while stationed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s resulted in legislation banning the practice of forcing soldiers to wear Muslim garb in that country, told TheDC that, whether women are being forced or allowed, wearing the hijab sends a bad message.
“The whole point I have been trying to make is that this is a strategic and not tactical issue. And the Commanders at General Petraeus’s level or above should have never AUTHORIZED it as an option, due to the wrong message it sends,” McSally wrote in an email. “I understand that you may not get immediate access to a village if the women don’t wear hijabs, but we shouldn’t be so desperate to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win over rural Afghan men and women that we are willing to compromise who we are.”
Mullen added that some women feel the headscarf helps them to better perform their jobs.
“They feel this gesture helps them in accomplishing their mission by serving as a sign of courtesy and respect to the locals,” Mullen wrote.
The ambiguity of the policy leaves McSally scratching her head. In an occupation where rules are king, McSally told TheDC the lack of precision is concerning.
“If we have even abandoned these practices about the importance of the wear of the uniform and command level policies and instead take a ‘wear whatever you choose in your view of what helps your tactical mission,’ that is inappropriate as well,” McSally wrote.