Politics & Government

Army soldiers can now wear hijabs, turbans and beards

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. AP

U.S. Army soldiers can now wear turbans and grow a beard, changes to official policy long-sought by the Sikh community. They can also now wear hijabs, the head covering for Muslims.

Members of the Sikh religious faith cover their head with a turban and are prohibited from cutting their hair or beard. Army Secretary Eric Fanning officially announced the religious accommodation changes to the uniform and grooming policy in a memo this week.

“Based on the successful examples of soldiers currently serving with these accommodations, I have determined that brigade-level commanders may approve requests for these accommodations,” Fanning wrote.

Previously, soldiers who sought to serve while covering their head or long beard had to fight for a special exemption from Army rules. Now, individuals can adhere to their religious practices if the Army determines the request is based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” Those seeking the religious accommodation must still place a request with their brigade-level commander.

Once granted, the permission to wear a head covering and keep long hair remains for a soldier’s entire career unless specifically revoked by the Army secretary. Men must keep their beards trimmed to a length of two inches or less.

Sikhism, a faith that originated in the Punjab region of India, has around 25 million followers worldwide and is the world’s ninth-largest religion.

The Sikh Coaltion campaigned for eight years for a change in Army policy to allow observant soldiers to serve without violating their religious principles. The advocacy organization called Fanning’s announcement “a historic step forward for Siksh and other religious minorities seeking to serve in our nation’s military.”

Previously, soldiers weren’t allowed to wear head coverings or grow beards because they could interfere with equipment, like wearing a helmet or gas mask.

“All soldiers must wear the advanced combat helmet and other protective headgear in accordance with the applicable technical manuals,” Fanning wrote in the memo. “As necessary, soldiers will modify the placement and style of their hair to achieve a proper fit. Removal of pads from helmets for fit or comfort is not permitted except as authorized by the applicable technical manual.”

The Army said it would work to test existing equipment or find other alternatives for protective masks, the protection of which is inhibited by long facial hair. Until an alternative is found and approved, those with the religious accommodation can’t attend toxic chemical agent training or be assigned to positions where wearing a face mask is imperative.

Women’s hijabs must be “made of a subdued material” and not have any designs or markings, except combat soldiers who are permitted to wear camouflage hijabs to match their uniforms.

Last week, the New York Police Department made a similar move in allowing Sikh officers to wear turbans instead of traditional police caps, and grow a beard up to a half-inch long. Officers must get approval and wear the NYPD insignia attached to their turban. Police Commissioner James O’Neill said there are about 160 Sikhs in his department.

The U.S. isn’t the only country with a Sikh presence in the military and law enforcement. Canada’s defense minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, is Sikh. He entered the reserves after graduating high school and invented and patented a protective hood that makes it possible to wear a gas mask while wearing his beard. Singh served in the Vancouver Police Department and in Afghanistan before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose him to serve as defense minister in 2015. He is the first person of color to run the Canadian defense department.