Best Defense

Hey, it should be our choice: A female officer on wearing an Afghan headscarf

By Lt. Col. Cheryl Garner, USAF Best Defense guest columnist It was with tooth-grinding frustration that I read retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally’s 18 February column in the Washington Post. In my opinion, she’s done a disservice to women like me, currently serving in Afghanistan. Even more troublesome are the outright inaccuracies in her ...


By Lt. Col. Cheryl Garner, USAF
Best Defense guest columnist

It was with tooth-grinding frustration that I read retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally’s 18 February column in the Washington Post. In my opinion, she’s done a disservice to women like me, currently serving in Afghanistan. Even more troublesome are the outright inaccuracies in her editorial, inaccuracies I feel compelled to dispel. 

First, to the best of my knowledge, no commanders in Afghanistan are insisting that women who serve here have to wear a headscarf, or chador, as it is called locally. I bring this up because the very title of Col. McSally’s article, “Why American troops in Afghanistan shouldn’t have to wear headscarves,” implies that this is happening. Actually, I have yet to see this. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Women service members whose duties call for them to interact with Afghans daily are frequently forbidden by commanders from wearing chador, even if they want to.

Second, McSally portrays the chador as a religious item. That statement is highly debatable. There are in fact non-Muslims in Afghanistan who wear chador because it is considered culturally appropriate, a fact that is seemingly lost on McSally, who apparently fails to grasp the wide cultural variance within the Islamic world, as evidenced by her “apples to oranges” comparison of wearing the abaya in Saudi Arabia to wearing the chador in Afghanistan.

McSally would also have readers believe two more inaccuracies — that Female Engagement Teams (FET) comprise the majority of military women wearing headscarves in Afghanistan and that most local women in Afghanistan wear the burqa, the full-bodied cover, also known as chadoree in Dari. While FETs are indeed at the forefront of the headscarf debate, there are also women serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, on Human Terrain Teams, as Mentors to Afghan Counterparts, in Ministries and as Afghan Hands, like myself. Likewise, while you will find that many Afghan women in Pashtun areas of the country wear the burqa, the wearing of it is hardly uniform across the country. You will often find a mixture of traditional Afghan dress and conservative western clothing. In truth, how a female service member dresses when interacting with her Afghan counterparts should be dependent upon the situation, her environment and her judgment, not on McSally’s ill informed opinions that she would see legislated by Congress. 

Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s, a female British national reportedly ventured into a market, or souq, in Riyadh with her hair uncovered and in “less than conservative” dress.  After an encounter with the Muttawa, or religious police, she reportedly required medical treatment for a fractured skull and three broken ribs. One can argue about the wisdom of this woman’s choice of dress, but the reality is that the final outcome of McSally’s legal case concerning the wear of the abaya revoked my option to wear it and in her latest column it is apparent she wishes to revoke choice in attire once again, this time in Afghanistan. She cites the wearing of the abaya and the chador as making her feel like a “second-class citizen.” I find this comment particularly intriguing because to feel defined by what one wears is something I would not expect from a retired colonel who has garnered celebrity as the Air Force’s “First Female Fighter Pilot.” In this sense I, like many women, am the antithesis of McSally; my sense of self and confidence in which I am extending far beyond any article of clothing I could ever wear. 

I also believe that behind McSally’s portrayal that sexual equality is the basis for her opinions, there is actually a tone that is decidedly sexist. She cites military regulation and proper wear of the uniform as a basis for not wearing the headscarf, an ironic and somewhat amusing argument given McSally’s wearing of a men’s flight cap during her change of command ceremony in 2004. Flight cap fiasco aside, my male counterparts working in both special operations and intelligence frequently grow out their facial hair and wear varying degrees of local garb during deployment, all in an effort to not stick out when they’re “outside the wire.” McSally would impose a double standard that disallows women the same options available to our male colleagues; a decidedly anti-feminist position from my viewpoint. The reality is that military men here in Afghanistan are wearing scarves every day while in uniform. Like Afghan men, coalition male civil affairs officers and special operations forces often wear them around their necks and often around their heads to shield their faces from the sand, and do so without being told to take them off because they are in uniform. Yet McSally makes no mention of this. Instead she singles out wear of the scarf by women, insisting it is a religious symbol as opposed to a cultural item.

As an Afghan Hand I have personally seen how embracing local culture, to include dress, language and customs, makes an incredible difference in building the working relationships needed for a successful counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy.  McSally states that “trust (with our Afghan partners) can be built on a foundation of mutual respect, where no one is expected to submit to others’ cultural and religious guidelines.” But I would argue that she’s confusing “submit” with “respect” and is parading her own ignorance by doing so. In no way should my wearing of chador or respecting local customs be seen as sanctioning a second class status for women. But unlike McSally, I would not have the Afghans conform to a Western worldview as a prerequisite for a working relationship. That is a recipe for disaster here in Afghanistan.

What I find most egregious in McSally’s argument, however, is not her gross ignorance of Afghan culture, nor her advocacy of a double standard for women serving in Afghanistan, nor even her belief that somehow her celebrity merits an act of Congress to legislate and impose her views on all women serving here. Rather, what is most offensive is her arrogant presumption and statement that any woman holding views different from her own is guilty of “appeasement” and of holding values “incongruent with ‘our’ fundamental values.”

Here’s how “incongruent” my values are: I care enough about the mission here in Afghanistan that I volunteered for deployment despite the difficult 18 month separation from my husband and two small children, both under six. I lobbied to the General Officer level for approval of a medical waiver to deploy because I was less than two years out from a diagnosis of aggressive cancer and by all rights non-deployable. I’ve studied Dari with dedication, earning top scores after only four months of language training. I, like many others, have made immeasurable sacrifices that may be difficult for Martha McSally to understand. More importantly, I’m the one serving in Afghanistan currently, so it’s the height of arrogance on the part of McSally to stand in judgment of me and others like me that hold views different from her own. 

Make no mistake, McSally’s column is not about giving women a choice or ensuring they have the right to say no to wearing chador if they choose to do so, nor is it about respecting a local culture. It’s about her willful desire to impose her personal beliefs and values onto every woman serving in uniform, which is ironic, given her tirade about Muslim subjugation of women.

Instead of listening to someone whose views are dated and not necessarily correlated with operations in the Afghan theater of operations, policy makers should allow AfPak Hands women and fellow female compatriots in theater to use our experience and judgment to chose when it is appropriate to wear a chador or adopt other customs. Such policy flexibility signals respect for the local culture, our soldiers’ judgment of such decisions, and will ultimately assist us in better achieving our mission objectives. 

Lt. Col. Cheryl Garner is an Air Force intelligence officer and Afghan Hand. She speaks Russian and Dari and is currently on a yearlong assignment in Kabul. These are her personal views, and are not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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