Tne front page of the New York Times for December 15th has a fascinating, inspiring story by Andrea Elliot about a woman named Fadwa Hamdan: From Head Scarf to Army Cap, Making a New Life.
Ms. Hamdan is a Muslim woman who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Air Force to help start a new life. She began not in basic training but in a special program for those who had failed the basic English language competency test.
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.
“I’m 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. Hamdan’s 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.
She belongs to the rare class of Muslim women who have signed up to become soldiers trained in Arabic translation. 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.
There’s a comment further on by her on of her training officers. “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.”
There’s also mention of some of the other women in the program:
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.
The article speaks of her growth when faced with the challenge of having to wear shorts:
“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 I’m like them,” she told him later. “I’m a man now.”
“No, you’re not a man” he said.
“Yes, I’m a man.”
“No,” he said. “You’re a strong-willed woman.”
That became his nickname for her: strong-willed woman.
As Ms. Hamdan’s status rose with the drill sergeants, so did her standing among the soldiers.
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 base’s mosque each Friday and fasted through the holy month of Ramadan.
The story has a mixed ending, as Ms. Hamdan fails the English language test and so can no longer stay in the Air Force:
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 don’t keep it inside.”
She thought for a moment.
“I changed myself,” she said. “I’m a new Fadwa. Strong female. I like this.”
Ms. Hamdan has shown such growth that I am sure she will do well going forward.
And while I can appreciate the military must have its standards, I do wish there had been a little more flexibility in this situation. As the article notes, “Such female linguists play a crucial role for the American armed forces in Iraq, where civilian women often feel uncomfortable interacting with male troops.” Ms. Hamdam could have been one of a very, very small number of devout Muslim women willing and able to serve in Iraq with the U.S. military.
If I were a military commander in Iraq, I would be honored to be able to take M. Hamdan to meetings with local leaders, especially when meeting with Iraqi women, so I could to show them that the U.S. military had soldiers who were both women and devout Muslims. I might have to take along another translator who was more skilled at English, but I think that would have been a small price to pay.
Good luck, Ms. Hamdan, and thank you for the example you have provided by sharing your story with us.
You are another in a series of brave Muslim wolmen who volunteered. I have written of others in the past and look forward to writing of more in the future. 
1. Then again, we’re all paying not a small price, but a big price due to the lack of flexibility in our Iraq strategy.