Out of the veil, into the Army

A Muslim woman transitions from family life in Saudi Arabia to the U.S. military.

Published December 15, 2006 10:10PM (EST)

Amid complaints of sexual harassment and reports of assault from women in the U.S. military, we're used to writing about female soldiers coping in a hostile environment. But that's not to say there aren't positive opportunities for women to fulfill G.I. Jane aspirations, as in the case of Fadwa Hamdan, a Muslim woman profiled at length in today's New York Times. Hamdan's journey is perhaps especially unique, since she traded an unhappy life in Saudi Arabia -- where, on the rare occasions that she left her home, she always donned a full-face veil, and where she was restricted from driving or pursuing a professional career -- for the testosterone-infused culture of the U.S. military. Or, as the Times puts it, Hamdan "left one male-dominated culture for another."

Hamdan, 39, left Saudi Arabia only after her husband found a second wife and took custody of their five children. In 2002, she joined family members in Queens, N.Y., where she struggled against other Muslim immigrants' perception that she was a "loose" woman. A year later, Hamdan decided to enlist as a soldier and study Arabic translation in Texas. Her brother fought against her decision, saying, "Woman always weak. She need a man to protect her." But boy, did she prove him wrong.

At first, Hamdan was teased by male soldiers for wearing shorts with her socks pulled up to her knees or sweatpants in the heat of a Texas summer, in an attempt at modesty. But, like a page borrowed from a Lifetime script and injected with some ass-kicking spirit, she excelled athletically, winning the one-mile race among female soldiers, and was appointed as a squad leader and bay commander. She became the type of woman who scarfs down Froot Loops and nacho-cheese Doritos in three minutes flat for breakfast every morning. Hamdan -- who used to tell herself, "I have power on the inside, and one day it's going to come out" -- began barking orders at fellow soldiers, including male soldiers. And they listened.

That's not to say the Times piece is a total girl power narrative: There's a somewhat irksome account of a sergeant nicknaming Hamdan "strong-willed woman." Sure, in military culture there are certainly worse nicknames for women, but there's the underlying suggestion that women are naturally weak and mild-mannered. I'll also admit to bristling slightly when the article repeatedly describes Hamdan as "frail," and pays attention to her "delicate hands" and "bony arms." Hamdan may have lacked physical strength at the start of her training, but the attention to her physicality seems to play to a cultural caricature of female soldiers unable to fill a man's shoes.

While Hamdan ultimately failed to pass her English test and was discharged today, her story still made me want to go do a couple pullups or really lay in to a punching bag. "I can face men," Hamdan told the Times. "I can fight. I can talk. I don't keep it inside ... I changed myself." She says she's as devout a Muslim as ever, but she's now wondering whether she'll continue to wear the hijab once she resumes her civilian life in Texas. "I'm a new Fadwa," she said. "Strong female. I like this." Yep -- so do we.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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