Negotiating the middle ground between her faith and service, Private Nargis Fatima, of Army Personnel Administration Centre ACT, is helping update Army’s uniform to include modesty options for Muslim women.

The 22-year-old, her twin sister Private Zahra Batool and fellow Muslim woman Private Hasiba Sahar joined Army on the same day in June 2018, and were the first women in Army to wear a hijab with their Army uniforms.

Private Fatima explained “hijab” means dressing for modesty rather than referring to a particular item of clothing, although it is often used to refer to a headscarf. 

“It may vary from one person to the next within our religion, but we share the underlying principle of staying covered,” Private Fatima said. 

Private Fatima covers her body to her ankles, wrists and chin, and she first faced uniform challenges when she joined the Army Pre-Conditioning Program (APCP). 

“I was wearing thermals with my T-shirt and shorts for PT, because that’s all they had that would keep me covered, until I could get my mother to send me lighter-weight layers,” Private Fatima said.

During Private Fatima’s recruit course, Recruit Instructor Corporal Jarryn Walters researched the uniform policy to help set her up for success.

“Even before she came into my platoon, while she was in APCP, I saw her KFF (slouch hat) wasn’t sitting properly on her hijab, so I stopped her and helped her fix it up,” Corporal Walters said.

“Once she was in my platoon, I did some research to make sure her dress and bearing were compliant with Defence policy. It was just part of my job. 

“It was for my own reassurance, to identify what her left and right of arc were, and also if anyone questioned her I could defend Private Fatima’s standard of dress without hesitation.”

The Army Dress Manual (chapter 3, paragraph 87) stipulates that the hijab is to be tan to mid-brown in colour, tucked neatly inside the collar of the uniform and provided at the member’s responsibility and expense.

Since marching out of Kapooka, though, Privates Fatima, Batool and Hasiba have been assisting Clothing SPO in developing various items of religious clothing as part of the issued uniform. Staff Officer Level 2 Diversity and Inclusion, Major Annemarie Chapman, said this has helped pave the way for other Muslim women and for Army. 

“These women have been very accommodating of the fact Army hasn’t had a uniform appropriate for their religious requirements, and they’ve been open and forward-leaning in finding a solution with us,” Major Chapman said.

“They’ve been really keen to help us develop suitable clothing options to which will ensure that all Army women of Muslim faith will have a functional and well-fitting uniform they are proud to wear.”