A patient walks into your office and states that he is having a panic attack because he just saw a women in the pharmacy line wearing a Hijab. Just seeing the veil produced flashbacks and a quickened pulse. Upon further questioning, he reveals that he is avoiding certain Middle Eastern restaurants, and missed an elevator ride because he saw a Muslim women waiting in line. He even states that he thought he saw a soldier wearing a Hijab, but then states "I think I must be losing my mind." As a provider working with service members, how culturally informed are you on veiling policies to better assist this patient?
Several of my patients suffering from PTSD have mentioned how uncomfortable they feel around persons wearing an Islamic veil. These warfighters may feel triggered when they see someone wearing clothing similar to their enemies downrange. However, as times change, it is essential to consider what the veil means and how its recent approval as part of an official United States military uniform can affect ones patients.
There appears to be a myriad of reasons why the United States has adopted its particular policies regarding veils and why some of these have recently changed in the DoD instructions. A contemporary westernized narrative is that the veil represses women and that by allowing the veil Islamists are imposing their religious values on Western countries. However, this blog will inform that this conventional narrative misses the full picture and we will consider how the new DoD regulations may increase religious freedom. Furthermore, this blog will answer questions on if the veil is used to control women and if it is a threat to national security.
Veiling has not historically been a significant area of contention in the United States. This country was created on the basis of religious tolerance and did not have a prior history of religious entities clashing over political power prior to its independence. Also, the numbers of Muslims in the United States are a very small minority. The passive secularist policies adopted by the United States have generally been friendly to Islamic immigrants. However, the use of the veil was historically banned for use by active duty military. In 2017, the United States Army decided to begin allowing Service members to wear veils after specific waivers were requested. Service members had to agree to the regulations imposed regarding the authorized use of veils. This policy has been upheld and by March 2020 these policies became accepted by both the United States Air Force and the United States Navy. This policy has not been without controversy, and there is a documented case of an Army Sargeant experiencing harassment for wearing a headscarf in 2019. She also filed an EO complaint after reportedly being called a "terrorist" by some of her fellow soldiers.
As Service members get adjusted to the new uniform policies, it is important to note that there are several conditions that must be met for ones being allowed to wear this modification to the uniform. A Service member must request this modification and must be interviewed about their religious beliefs. They should also have an understanding that the veils must be of certain colors and types that match with their military uniform. Their face must be visible and their hair must continue to meet regulations under the headscarf.
However, some will argue, when does the freedom of a country to make its own rules impinge on the liberty of members of a minority religion? For example, there was outrage about three policemen arresting a woman for wearing a Burkini in France, but is there the same level of concern when three police arrest a woman for wearing a bikini on the beaches of Dubai? Is it the United State military’s responsibility to be more tolerant and accept diverse cultural patterns of behavior? The simple answer is yes. The purported values of the United States include liberty, freedom, and tolerance of religions. Service members have fought, sacrificed and died for these freedoms. To negate those fundamental values would be a travesty.
What is the Veil?
The veil is a meter of cloth usually of a dark color that covers a women’s hair and sometimes their face. It is currently most often used in Muslim countries, but has historically been seen in some form in Christian, Amish, and Jewish communities. One common misnomer is that the veil is mandated for use in the Islamic text the Koran. However, upon close inspection there is no edict in this manuscript that prescribes its use. The only mention of a veil was for keeping the wives of the prophet Muhammad pure and safe. However, there are Haddith’s or Islamic edicts that have prescribed their use, so it is not uncommon to hear Islamic women share how they wear the veil for religious reasons. The Koran actually espouses the value of the inner beauty and is generally a peaceful religion. With this being said, there are extremist Islamic groups that interpret the Koran in a very violent manner and have hijacked passages of that religion to increase their economic and political power. However, the large majority of persons believing in the Muslim faith are peaceful and just exercising their right of religious freedom. This type of information may be helpful to educate our patients on the actual risk of interacting with persons from the Muslim faith.
Is the Veil a Manner of Controlling Women or a Sign of Free Self-Expression?
One factor that affects veiling policies in other countries is when it is used to control women’s behavior. A common Western discourses usually labels Islamic veiling as an anti-feminist policy that necessitates eradication. For example, French women reported that the veil was suppressing women's rights. However, one must question if this was indeed a women's rights issue since these same veiled women were being denied an education in France for wearing the veil. Elizabeth Ozdalga, a professor, expert, and researcher from the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul presents a cogent argument that "real" feminists are not those that forbid the headscarf to get rid of an ideology that is hostile to women's emancipation. She questions how free Western women are when they wear little clothes and give in to men's base expectations of being sexual objects. She asks, “Is it not feminist to hold one's self with honor, modesty, and dignity?” Professor Ozdalga offered examples of Islamic women that reported they felt closer to Allah when wearing the veil and saw wearing the veil as an honor. She also shared stories of women that chose to unveil because it felt like too much of a hassle in a Western country. These decisions were made by women. Nilufer Gole, a sociologist and former professor from Bogazici University also points out, “the veil is not only about patriarchy and radical Islam, but can be seen in flexible forms as seen in Turkey” (Gole). So this control of women through veiling policies is not always done by the Islamic religious powers, but is sometimes done by Western countries imposing their values on these women.
Another example is found with Maria Boariu, a religious scholar, who shared that the Westernized French feminism values were forced upon Algerian women (Boariu). It is striking to appreciate that after much research, the assumption that all women wearing veils are doing so against their will did not hold water. While some women may feel they must wear the veil because of religious or familial pressure, others appreciate the spiritual meaning and the feelings of modesty. Gole mentions “what’s one groups modesty may be seen by another group as ostentatious” (Gole). Some women even reported feeling more whole and empowered when wearing the veil; women chose to remain veiled, even when allowed to unveil. They may feel protected under the veil and feel that they can be invisible to the ravenous eyes of lurking men. Nonetheless, the problem of women needing to protect themselves from men could also be reframed as a problem of addressing men's sexually harassing behavior.
Is the Veil Policy a National Security Threat?
A second factor is the importance of considering veiling policies in light of the United States national security. Governmental security apparatuses can be stifled by wearing a veil or mask. When one enters a military base, the security officer asks to see your face. In the airport or some cities, cameras identify the populace through face recognition software.
Some people in Algeria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have used the veil as both weapons and a way of identifying a friend from foe. The French and coalition forces were at a disadvantage by the guerilla warfare tactics utilized by veiled combatants. The veiled combatants could attack and avoid capture by removing their veil. The Western military forces valued the importance of seeing the enemy, and the veil thwarted that objective. However, most women wearing veils in the United States and all of them in the military keep their face visible, so these threats generally do not apply.
Western discourse about the veil should be challenged, and dialogue about veiling should be considered from different perspectives. Offering this perspective to our patients is not only therapeutic, but a moral imperative. Service members are trained to kill the enemy, but they must also be retrained on seeing situations from a non-warfighter point of view. In light of the changing policies in the Department of Defense it is incumbent on providers to be educated about policies that may trigger their patients or help patients being harassed, even after following DoD approved policies.
As shown in this blog, many women are wearing veils out of a free choice of religious expression and although it is important to consider national security interests, the true threat from a few women wearing veils is minimal. By considering the facts and utilizing psychoeducation one can assist their patients in traversing the minefields of PTSD and helping them accurately predict their safety risks. A therapist’s mistaking their patients seeing a soldier in a hijab as a hallucination could be devastating for their recovery. This blog cites new instructions and multiple reasons for adhering to an open attitude regarding the veil.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Augusto Ruiz, Psy.D. is a Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.
Ozdalga, Elizabeth. The Veiling Issue, Official Secularism, and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey. RoutledgeCurzon, 1998.
Boariu, Maria. “The Veil as Metaphor of French Colonized Algeria”, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 1 (3):173-188 (2002)
Gole, Nilufer. “Islam and Western Secular Modernity: A Conversation with Nilufer Gole”, Webinar on 6 Aug 2020.
Myers, Megan. Army Times, “New Army policy Oks soldiers to wear hijabs, turbans and beards.” 5 January 2017, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2017/01/05/new-army-policyoks-soldiers-to-wear-hijabs-turbans-and-religious-beards/
Myers, Megan. Navy Times, “Navy regs update religious headgear in uniform, provides rules for beard chits.” 23 March 2020, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2020/03/23/navy-regs-update-religious-headgear-in-uniform-provides-rules-for-beard-chits/
Kaur, Harmeet. CNN, “Air Force updates its dress code policy to include turbans, beards and hijabs.” 13 FEB 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/13/us/air-force-dress-code-sikhs-muslims-trnd/index.html
Myers, Meghann. Army Times, “A Muslim soldier says her command sergeant major forced her to remove her hijab.” 12 March 2019. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/03/12/a-muslim-soldier-says-her-command-sergeant-major-forced-her-to-remove-her-hijab/