Are U.S Servicewomen Trading the Safety of the Helmet for the Hijab?

Recent pictures in Stars and Stripes feature female U.S. service members wearing the Islamic headscarf, also known as a hijab.  These women are part of a new initiative, Female Engagement Teams, being deployed in Afghanistan.  

Aside from questions about whether the safety of these women deployed into harm's way is jeopardized by trading the helmet for the hijab, the photos invoke memories of a policy fight in Congress less than a decade ago.  In 2002, the Senate overturned a DoD mandate requiring female American service members stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the Saudi version of the burqa, known as an abaya.  Similarly, in the House of Representatives, an amendment was enacted to end the "abaya" mandate.  Women in Saudi Arabia (or in Afghanistan under the brutal reign of the primitive Taliban) are subject to beatings by religious police (in Saudi Arabia known as muttawa), if they expose, even inadvertently, a wrist or ankle.  

The DoD "abaya" policy was defended under the guise of "cultural sensitivities," but it morphed into being justified as necessary for "force protection," since "cultural sensitivities" smacked of political correctness.  Could anyone imagine U.S. soldiers dispatched to South Africa under Apartheid segregating black and white soldiers to comply with "cultural sensitivities"?  Yet in Saudi Arabia, American servicewomen, prior to congressional intervention, were subjected to similar humiliation and coerced into conformance with an alien religious faith.

In Barack Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009, he stated, "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal."  Obama implied, mistakenly, that wearing of the hijab is by choice.  Surely Obama, with part of his youth spent in Muslim-dominant Indonesia, knows that in strict Islamic societies, the veil or headscarf is not optional.  Even in the U.S. and Canada, young Muslim women have been killed by their fathers for refusing to submit to Islamic practices, including covering their hair -- their "crime" being their desire to fit in and to look like other American girls. 

Back in 2001, Congress unanimously decided, with support from feminists and religious freedom advocates, that it was wrong to subject female service members to requirements of an Islamic regime that relegates women to second-class status.

Islamic reformists have fought for decades to improve the status of women.  Mustafa Kemal in Turkey in 1926 gave women equality with men in such matters as inheritance and divorce, ending the gender separation from the Ottoman era, and declared, "If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development.  We shall remain irremediably backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West." 

In France, the burqa and full veil were banned in public, and in French schools, the veil and other symbols of religion were also banned.  The French recognize the importance of preserving a secular state and assimilating Muslim immigrants.  The veil emerged as a symbol of "separateness," of rejection of Western values -- a political statement of endorsement for militant Islam.  But the French, witnessing burning cars in the banlieus and police no-go zones in 2005, had a taste of unbridled, militant Islam.

Progressive Muslims, like Egypt's culture minister, Farouk Hosni, parted ways with government backing of the veil, denouncing the hijab as "a step backward for Egyptian women."  Is the DoD embracing a posture less progressive than that of Egypt's culture minister or the French government?  Isn't the DoD, by encouraging servicewomen to wear headscarves, siding with primitive militants -- like the Taliban -- over reformists and more enlightened Muslims? 

With Obama's background, he is well-positioned to advance the understanding that successful Muslim societies have been the ones that unleashed the suppressed potential of fifty percent of their human capital.  Obama unfortunately squandered the opportunity to make this point in Egypt, but it is even more disturbing that signs of submission to Islam are creeping back into the U.S. Armed Forces. 

Most important, a headscarf is no protection against a sniper or IED.  A helmet is standard protective gear for the most important part of the human body: the brain.  A female soldier in a headscarf limits her peripheral vision, a problem when operating in a hostile or potentially hostile environment.  With the bizarre hybrid of a camouflage uniform topped by a headscarf, a female service member is identifying herself as an American soldier but simultaneously making a concession to Islam (in uniform, as a representative of the American government) -- hardly an image to inspire confidence, and one that will provoke derision from a religiously motivated enemy that views such acts as weakness. 

Congress needs to ensure that the spirit of the legislation repealing the "abaya" mandate is extended to protect female service members who may be pressured by superiors to forego the safety of the helmet for the hijab and compelled to disrespect their First Amendment-protected religious beliefs.

Mrs. Hemenway is a retired former DoD official and congressional staffer.
Recent pictures in Stars and Stripes feature female U.S. service members wearing the Islamic headscarf, also known as a hijab.  These women are part of a new initiative, Female Engagement Teams, being deployed in Afghanistan.  

Aside from questions about whether the safety of these women deployed into harm's way is jeopardized by trading the helmet for the hijab, the photos invoke memories of a policy fight in Congress less than a decade ago.  In 2002, the Senate overturned a DoD mandate requiring female American service members stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear the Saudi version of the burqa, known as an abaya.  Similarly, in the House of Representatives, an amendment was enacted to end the "abaya" mandate.  Women in Saudi Arabia (or in Afghanistan under the brutal reign of the primitive Taliban) are subject to beatings by religious police (in Saudi Arabia known as muttawa), if they expose, even inadvertently, a wrist or ankle.  

The DoD "abaya" policy was defended under the guise of "cultural sensitivities," but it morphed into being justified as necessary for "force protection," since "cultural sensitivities" smacked of political correctness.  Could anyone imagine U.S. soldiers dispatched to South Africa under Apartheid segregating black and white soldiers to comply with "cultural sensitivities"?  Yet in Saudi Arabia, American servicewomen, prior to congressional intervention, were subjected to similar humiliation and coerced into conformance with an alien religious faith.

In Barack Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009, he stated, "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal."  Obama implied, mistakenly, that wearing of the hijab is by choice.  Surely Obama, with part of his youth spent in Muslim-dominant Indonesia, knows that in strict Islamic societies, the veil or headscarf is not optional.  Even in the U.S. and Canada, young Muslim women have been killed by their fathers for refusing to submit to Islamic practices, including covering their hair -- their "crime" being their desire to fit in and to look like other American girls. 

Back in 2001, Congress unanimously decided, with support from feminists and religious freedom advocates, that it was wrong to subject female service members to requirements of an Islamic regime that relegates women to second-class status.

Islamic reformists have fought for decades to improve the status of women.  Mustafa Kemal in Turkey in 1926 gave women equality with men in such matters as inheritance and divorce, ending the gender separation from the Ottoman era, and declared, "If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development.  We shall remain irremediably backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West." 

In France, the burqa and full veil were banned in public, and in French schools, the veil and other symbols of religion were also banned.  The French recognize the importance of preserving a secular state and assimilating Muslim immigrants.  The veil emerged as a symbol of "separateness," of rejection of Western values -- a political statement of endorsement for militant Islam.  But the French, witnessing burning cars in the banlieus and police no-go zones in 2005, had a taste of unbridled, militant Islam.

Progressive Muslims, like Egypt's culture minister, Farouk Hosni, parted ways with government backing of the veil, denouncing the hijab as "a step backward for Egyptian women."  Is the DoD embracing a posture less progressive than that of Egypt's culture minister or the French government?  Isn't the DoD, by encouraging servicewomen to wear headscarves, siding with primitive militants -- like the Taliban -- over reformists and more enlightened Muslims? 

With Obama's background, he is well-positioned to advance the understanding that successful Muslim societies have been the ones that unleashed the suppressed potential of fifty percent of their human capital.  Obama unfortunately squandered the opportunity to make this point in Egypt, but it is even more disturbing that signs of submission to Islam are creeping back into the U.S. Armed Forces. 

Most important, a headscarf is no protection against a sniper or IED.  A helmet is standard protective gear for the most important part of the human body: the brain.  A female soldier in a headscarf limits her peripheral vision, a problem when operating in a hostile or potentially hostile environment.  With the bizarre hybrid of a camouflage uniform topped by a headscarf, a female service member is identifying herself as an American soldier but simultaneously making a concession to Islam (in uniform, as a representative of the American government) -- hardly an image to inspire confidence, and one that will provoke derision from a religiously motivated enemy that views such acts as weakness. 

Congress needs to ensure that the spirit of the legislation repealing the "abaya" mandate is extended to protect female service members who may be pressured by superiors to forego the safety of the helmet for the hijab and compelled to disrespect their First Amendment-protected religious beliefs.

Mrs. Hemenway is a retired former DoD official and congressional staffer.

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