Finding Arabic-speaking women to serve in the military has proved difficult

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 15 17:15:14 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, December 15, 2006
Faith and War

>>From Head Scarf to Army Cap, Making a New Life

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Tex.  Stomping her boots and swinging her bony
arms, Fadwa Hamdan led a column of troops through this bleak Texas base.
Only six months earlier, she wore the head scarf of a pious Muslim woman
and dropped her eyes in the presence of men. Now she was marching them to
dinner. Im gonna be a shooting man, a shooting man! she cried, her
Jordanian accent lost in the chanting voices. The best I can for Uncle
Sam, for Uncle Sam! The United States military has long prided itself on
molding raw recruits into hardened soldiers. Perhaps none have undergone a
transformation quite like that of Ms. Hamdan. Forbidden by her husband to
work, she raised five children behind the drawn curtains of their home in
Saudi Arabia. She was not allowed to drive. On the rare occasions when she
set foot outside, she wore a full-face veil.

Then her world unraveled. Separated from her husband, who had taken a
second wife, and torn from her children, she moved to Queens to start
over. Struggling to survive on her own, she answered a recruiting
advertisement for the Army and enlisted in May. Ms. Hamdans passage
through the military is a remarkable act of reinvention. It required
courage and sacrifice. She had to remove her hijab, a sacred symbol of the
faith she holds deeply. She had to embrace, at the age of 39, an arduous
and unfamiliar life.  In return, she sought what the military has always
promised new soldiers:  a stable home, an adoptive family, a remade
identity. She left one male-dominated culture for another, she said, in
the hope of finding new strength along the way. Always, I dream I have
power on the inside, and one day its going to come out, said Ms. Hamdan, a
small woman with delicate hands and sad, almond eyes.

She belongs to the rare class of Muslim women who have signed up to become
soldiers trained in Arabic translation. Such female linguists play a
crucial role for the American armed forces in Iraq, where civilian women
often feel uncomfortable interacting with male troops. Finding
Arabic-speaking women willing to serve in the military has proved
daunting. Of the 317 soldiers who have completed training in the Army
linguist program since 2003, just 23 are women, 13 of them Muslim. Ms.
Hamdan wrestled with the decision for two years. Only in the Army, she
decided, would she be able to save money to hire a lawyer and finally
divorce her husband. She yearned to regain custody of her children and
support them on her own. She thought of going to graduate school one day.
But when Ms. Hamdan finally enlisted, she was filled with as much fear as
determination. There was no guarantee, with her broken English and frail
physique, that she could meet the militarys standards or survive its

This is different world for me, she said at the time. This Is the Army It
was around midnight on May 31 when a yellow school bus brought Ms.
Hamdan and 16 other new soldiers to Lackland Air Force Base in San
Antonio, a spread of parched grass and drab, low-lying buildings. Ms.
Hamdan had not scored high enough on the required English examination to
go directly to basic training, so she was sent here for intensive language
instruction. At Lackland, soldiers enlisted in the Army linguist program
known as 09-Lima have 24 weeks to improve their English and pass the exam.
In that time, they follow a strict military regimen. They rise at 5 a.m.
for physical training. They march to class. They drop to the ground for
punitive push-ups. When the bus arrived at the barracks that evening, Ms.
Hamdan said, she hopped out first, her camouflage cap pulled low on her
head. Standing by the metal stairs was Sgt. First Class Willie Brannon, an
imposing 48-year-old man with a stern jaw and a leveling stare. He ordered
the soldiers to change into shorts. Ms. Hamdan explained softly that she
was Muslim and could not do this.

This is the Army, he replied. Everybodys the same. Ms. Hamdan burst into
tears. The issue had arisen at the base before, and some of the Muslim
women had been permitted to wear sweat pants instead of shorts.
Officially, it would be Ms. Hamdans choice. But from the sidelines came
two opposing directives, one in English and the other in Arabic. The drill
sergeants wanted Ms. Hamdan to get used to wearing shorts, while several
of the male Muslim soldiers tried to shame her into refusing. Youre not
supposed to show your legs, they told her. For three weeks, she wore the
blue nylon shorts, hitching up her white socks. Then she switched to sweat
pants, even as the summer heat surpassed 100 degrees. It helped, Ms.
Hamdan thought, that there were so many similarities between Islam and the

The command Attention! reminded her of the first step in the daily Muslim
prayer, when one must stand completely still. Soldiers, like Muslims, were
instructed to eat with one hand. The women ate by themselves, and always
walked with an escort, as Muslim women traditionally traveled. The Army
taught soldiers to live with order. They folded their fatigues as women
folded their hijabs, and woke before sunrise as Ms. Hamdan had done all
her life. They always marched behind a flag, as Muslims did in the days of
the Prophet. Nothing felt more familiar than the militarys emphasis on
respect.  Soldiers learned to tuck their hands behind their backs when
speaking to superiors. When Ms. Hamdan tried this with Sergeant Brannon,
she thought of her father. Her eyes automatically dropped to the floor,
with customary Muslim modesty.

Look me in the eye, the sergeant said. It was a command he had learned to
deliver with care. Sergeant Brannon, an African-American Baptist from
North Carolina, had never met a Muslim before coming to Lackland. He soon
concluded that the Muslim women in his charge had survived greater
struggles outside the military than anything they would face inside it.
They've been through a lot, he said.

Life Before the Service

Fadwa Hamdan was always a touch rebellious. One of seven children, she was
raised by her Palestinian parents in Amman, Jordan. Her father worked as a
government irrigation official while her mother stayed at home with the
children. They expected the same of their daughters. But as a teenager,
Ms. Hamdan rejected her many suitors. She wanted to see the world. At 19,
she said, she secretly volunteered as a nurse with the Jordanian police,
infuriating her parents. That same year, a visiting Palestinian doctor who
lived in New York spotted her in the street. He tracked down her home
address, and spoke to her father. The next day, Ms. Hamdan learned she was
engaged. Your dream has come true, Ms. Hamdan recalls her mother saying.
Youre leaving Jordan. Ms. Hamdan joined her husband in Staten Island in
1987. She felt nothing for him. He was 10 years her senior, and she found
him stiff and dictatorial. He only let her leave the house with him, she
said. If she upset him, he refused to speak to her for months.

She had children to fill the void. She became more religious, and began
wearing the face veil known as a niqab. Eventually, the family moved to
Saudi Arabia. Weeks after Ms. Hamdan delivered her fifth child in 2000,
she learned from her mother-in-law that her husband was taking a second
wife in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ms. Hamdan was shocked. I couldnt
talk, she said. The next summer, on a family vacation in Amman, her
husband disappeared one evening with three of their children, she said.
Days later she located two of her boys in Saudi Arabia, and learned that
the new wife would be joining them. Ms. Hamdans 8-year-old girl had been
left with her grandparents in Ramallah. She tried to get the girl back,
but her husband had kept the childs passport, she said. When reached by
telephone in Saudi Arabia, a man answering to her husbands name said, This
is her choice and I dont have anything to do with it, apparently referring
to her decision to join the Army. Then he hung up.

It never occurred to Ms. Hamdan to seek a divorce. She feared that it
would bring shame to her family. From Jordan, she fought for legal custody
of the children. In 2002, a judge ruled that she could keep the three
youngest children, but allotted her a meager alimony, not enough to cover
their schooling. Reluctantly, she returned them to their father. Alone in
Amman, she felt like an outcast. The neighbors, they look at me, she said.
In September 2002, she moved to Queens to live with her brother and his
wife. She returned to wearing a regular head scarf, or hijab, and started
classes at a local community college. One night she came home late, she
said, and her brother told her to leave. She did not follow the rules of
the house, the brother, Sam Saeed, said in an interview. Ms. Hamdan did
not know where to turn. Her father had refused to speak to her since she
left Jordan. Over the next 10 days, she rode the subway at night and slept
on a park bench in Queens. Finally, she walked into a hair salon in
Brooklyn and approached a Lebanese Muslim woman.

She was hysterical crying, said the woman, Helena Buiduon. Ms. Hamdan
stayed with Ms. Buiduon until she found her own apartment. She taught the
Koran to children and worked in a doctors office while earning an
associates degree in medical assistance. Her life remained a struggle. She
lived in a small, drafty apartment in the Bronx. Other Muslim immigrants
found her puzzling. Some people suggested that she was a loose woman, she
recalled, a notion that amused her given how little she wanted another
relationship. I cant feel anything for anybody, she said. I lived like
jail. Just imagine you have a bird and the door is open. You think he will
go back to this jail again? Never. Hes just flying. In 2003, she spotted
an ad for the Army in an Arabic-language magazine.  She met with a
recruiter but cut the conversation short after learning she would have to
remove her head scarf before enlisting. Secretly, though, she kept
imagining a new, military life. In March, she made up her mind.

I broke the law with God, she said of her decision to remove her hijab. I
had to. She put her belongings in storage. She began lifting 20-pound
weights. She slipped off her veil in public a few times. She felt naked.
Two days before she left, she stopped by her brothers video shop in Queens
to say goodbye. Mr. Saeed was kneeling in prayer, as a Spanish rap video
blasted from a television set. He stiffened at the sight of Ms. Hamdan,
then kissed her on the cheek. They had not seen each other all year.
Within minutes, an argument began. Shell never make it, Mr. Saeed said,
looking away from his sister. Oh yeah? she replied, her eyes widening. A
Muslim woman is not allowed to travel alone, he said. What about working?
she said, her voice quivering. Look at your wife, she works! She likes to
spend time here, he said. Ms. Hamdan ran from the store crying. She wont
make it, Mr. Saeed told a reporter after she left. Woman always weak. She
need a man to protect her. Later, when Ms. Hamdan heard what her brother
had said, she was silent. Why didnt he protect me? she said.

What Happens Next

Life at Lackland where soldiers cannot chew gum, wear makeup or leave the
base reminded Ms. Hamdan of her marriage. Sometimes, when Im by myself, I
wonder how I have stayed here for six months, she said as she sat outside
her barracks one recent evening. But I did it. She was among 39 men and
women in the Army linguist program, in a company of 119 soldiers. The rest
were immigrants from around the globe, there to improve their English in
the hopes of entering boot camp. Everyone, it seemed, had a sad story. The
women talked quietly after the lights went out. A Sudanese woman had come
to the United States after most of her family died in a bombing in
Khartoum. A 23-year-old woman had lost her Iranian mother in an honor
killing. A teenage Iraqi girl cried herself to sleep every night. She,
like many other soldiers, began referring to Ms. Hamdan as Mom. They come
into my arms, said Ms. Hamdan, who was older than most of the others. She
missed being a mother, yet she rarely talked about her own children.  She
was learning not to cry, and that was a subject that broke her down.
Privately, she called them in Saudi Arabia twice a week with 20-minute
phone cards, four minutes per child.

As the summer wore on, it became clear that Ms. Hamdan was floundering in
her English studies. She failed the exam repeatedly. Physically, though,
she was growing stronger. Push-ups and sit-ups no longer scared her. She
found she was a fast runner. On Aug. 10, she won the one-mile race for
female soldiers in seven minutes flat, in sweat pants. The next week, she
became a squad leader and bay commander, directing a column of soldiers
during marches and keeping order in the female barracks. Days later, she
decided to wear the shorts again. What, we have a new soldier here?
Sergeant Brannon called out as she walked deliberately down the stairs. I
am going to show the men Im like them, she told him later. Im a man now.
No, youre not a man he said. Yes, Im a man. No, he said. You're a
strong-willed woman.

That became his nickname for her: strong-willed woman. As Ms. Hamdans
status rose with the drill sergeants, so did her standing among the
soldiers. Sometimes Im tough on them, she said one recent weekday as she
patrolled her floor. The women smiled from their bunk beds. I like
everything clean. Another morning, she sat in the mess hall, eating her
daily breakfast of Froot Loops followed by nacho-cheese Doritos. A drill
sergeant called out that the group had three minutes to finish, just as a
clean-shaven soldier walked past Ms. Hamdan with a tray full of food. She
shot him a hard look. Three minutes, she repeated. You hear that? The
greatest shift for Ms. Hamdan came in her relationship with the male
soldiers. They stopped taunting her about wearing shorts. When she gave
orders, they listened. It seems like a heavy burden has been lifted from
her, Sergeant Brannon said. Yet even as she felt herself changing, she
remained steady in her faith.  She never stopped praying five times a day.
She attended the bases mosque each Friday and fasted through the holy
month of Ramadan.

On a recent Friday, she sat with her eyes closed on the mosques
embroidered carpet, wearing a white veil and skirt over her Army fatigues.
Staying on the straight path is not an easy matter, except for those who
Allah helps to do so, the Egyptian imam said in Arabic over a loudspeaker.
In November, Ms. Hamdans English score was still too low, by 11 points,
even though she was performing better on the weekly quizzes. She was given
a one-month extension, and one more chance. She took her last exam in
December, and failed again. She ran from her classroom. Dont come looking
for me, she recalled telling a startled drill sergeant. By herself, Ms.
Hamdan began walking across the base. Tears streamed down her face as she
reached the two-story, concrete building that had long been her refuge.
She climbed the stairs of the mosque. Alone, she knelt on the carpet and
prayed. Finally, she sat in silence. She felt at peace.

Ms. Hamdan will be discharged on Dec. 15. She is unsure of what the future
holds. She may stay in Texas and look for a job. She may no longer wear a
hijab in public. All she knows is that she is different now, and no less a
Muslim for it. I can face men, she said. I can fight. I can talk. I dont
keep it inside. She thought for a moment. I changed myself, she said. Im a
new Fadwa. Strong female. I like this.


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