Changing your life
Andrea Elliott/ The New York Times
After her life as a wife and a mother of five fell
apart, Fadwa Hamdan moved to Queens before
seeking opportunity in the Army.
From Head Scarf to Army Cap, Making a New Life
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
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.
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 it’s 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 military’s standards or survive its rigors.
“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. “Everybody’s 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. Hamdan’s 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.
“You’re 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 Army.
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 military’s 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.
“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.
On a recent Friday, she sat with her eyes closed on the mosque’s 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. Hamdan’s 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.
“Don’t 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 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.”
posted by Steve @ 1:47:00 AM