Hijabs in the Military: Is the Citadel Stuck in the Past?

The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina

What happens when two traditions collide? What if neither can lay claim to an overriding legitimacy, but both are unwilling to budge? That’s what happened last week in South Carolina, as one of the oldest and most famous military colleges in America dealt strongly with a rather unusual request: the Citadel decided not to allow one of its newest cadets an exception to uniform policy in order to wear a hijab, a religious headscarf indicative of the Muslim faith, as well as long-sleeved undergarments under fitness uniforms.

In rejecting the request, the Citadel managed to mess up what should have been a rather easy choice to allow it. Give this young lady her exception, and let’s move on to more important issues.

Of course, the Citadel does not take modifying its traditions lightly. Military pomp and circumstance is considered a time-honored way of training new recruits, not just a tie to the past. In a statement about the decision, the Citadel’s president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, USAF (Ret.) said that “the standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions, and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college. This process reflects an initial relinquishing of self during which cadets learn the value of teamwork to function as a single unit.”

But this begs the question: exactly how much of the self need be relinquished? Surely the Citadel leaves open the option for cadets to wear religious jewelry and adornments of other kinds—I’d be quite surprised if you couldn’t find any cadets wearing cross necklaces, for example—and you can’t exactly make the case that those are necessary elements of the faith. So perhaps their problem is that it’s too visible? Yet in recent years many branches of the military have made formal policy changes to permit greater latitude in overt religious garments and modifications, from formal permission to wear a Jewish kippah to the more striking recent example of the Army allowing Sikh soldiers to wear a rather difficult to hide combination of a head wrap and a beard.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders differ substantially on what degree to which a Muslim woman should cover her body. These same scholars and imams largely agree, however, that a desire by a woman to express her faith by covering more should be honored unless circumstances necessitate otherwise. Other than the small amount of additional fabric neatly tucked in, this cadet will still be wearing the same overall uniforms, and will still be training to the same standard. Perhaps the Citadel is really worried that she might hide undone hair?

And let’s not forget, for all their proud traditions, the Citadel has changed when necessary in the past. In 1966, over 100 years after Citadel cadets helped start the Civil War with their aid to the attack on Fort Sumter (Citadel cadets actually fired the literal first shots in the war, against a ship trying to resupply the fort, and later helped in the artillery barrage of the fort), they finally allowed the first African American students to attend. And finally in 1995 they allowed the first female students to attend, an act which required the explicit retooling of the uniforms. If that’s not accommodation rightly overriding tradition, then what is?

Of course, we’re not talking about just any accommodation, but specifically religious accommodation, a term that carries a lot of baggage right now. It’s commonly—and often quite correctly—associated with attempts by the dominant religions in America to gain special exemptions from generally applicable laws, often for the express purpose of continuing discriminatory practices. As a general principle, however, there’s typically nothing wrong with allowing accommodation for sincere beliefs as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of another. In no way do a hijab or long-sleeved undergarments so infringe. The Citadel’s response to this woman’s case seems to be an expert example of not just the often one-way nature of religious exceptions in America today, but of the fact that America is responding to any hint of Islam with a near existential dread truly unbefitting of us all.

The fact that a Muslim student wants to join the Citadel at all, knowing just how inhospitable its climate will be to her, is an exercise in courage we should all be seeking to emulate. We should be celebrating that a Muslim wants to take up the mantle of protector of America’s freedoms knowing full well that a significant number of the citizenry actively seek to deny her similar rights. And having another proud Muslim as an American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine can only help in dispelling the pernicious myth that America is somehow at war with Islam itself.

I don’t have to agree with her desire to wear the hijab—in fact I have quite negative opinions of it and how it and other coverings can be used to subjugate women throughout Muslim communities—to respect her sincerity of belief as long as it is expressed peacefully and isn’t coercive of others. My humanism requires nothing less than respecting the person in that way despite our profound religious differences.

In the end, though, this woman’s request is something else entirely; it is a leadership test on the Citadel itself: of whether it can be inclusive and forward-thinking or is stuck in outmoded views. In denying the request, the Citadel clung solidly to its traditions but failed the test.