Muslim and Sikh Troops Can Now Wear Beards, Turbans and Headscarves

The U.S. Army just changed its grooming regulations to accommodate observant soldiers

U.S. Army
Capt. (Dr.) Tejdeep Singh Rattan (right) checks in a patient during the triage portion of an exercise during the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Camp Bullis, Texas in 2010. Rattan was the first Sikh allowed to keep his articles of faith while in uniform in 23 years. U.S. Army - Flickr

When you picture an active-duty member of the Armed Forces, what do you envision? For many, that image includes a clean-shaven face, short or pulled-back hair and uniform attire. Now, Reuters’ David Alexander reports, that look is set to change with new regulations that make it easier for observant men and women who serve in the U.S. Army to wear clothing and hair in line with their religious customs.

Army Secretary Eric Fanning signed a memorandum that revises uniform rules this week, reports Alexander. Not only will it allow hijabs for women, but it sets appearance standards for men who wish to wear facial hair or turbans for religious reasons. Army Times’ Meghann Myers explains the regulations in depth, noting restrictions on the color and cuts of headscarves and turbans, an under-2-inch-long restriction for beards, and various other regulations related to appearance and grooming. She reports that the accommodations can now be sought from brigade-level officials and that the Army now plans on assessing its protective gear for safety and providing alternatives for those who choose to seek grooming accommodations.

The new rules will affect a portion of the approximately 4,000 troops who currently list their faith as Islam—about 0.3 percent of the U.S. military, according to the New York Times. The number of observant Sikhs in the military is much smaller, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the military's right to ban facial hair and religious headgear in a 1986 decision: NPR reports that as of June 2015, just three observant Sikh men were serving.

One of those men is Captain Simratpal Singh, a decorated combat veteran who was granted the permanent right to wear a beard and turban by the Army earlier this year. As The New York Times’ Dave Philipps reports, Singh sued the government after a temporary accommodation had expired. In a Stars and Strips interview with Corey Dickstein, Singh related the turmoil he faced as a West Point student forced to shave his beard and hair despite his religion’s belief that hair should never be cut.

Sikh men are not the only people who have faced conflicts between their religious beliefs and military grooming policies. After the Citadel rejected a Muslim woman’s request to wear a hijab, she entered a private military college in Vermont this year. And the Armys beard ban has been blamed for a dearth of Army chaplains who are Jewish. Nor is the U.S. military the only institution that is revising how it treats religious attire and grooming: Just last month, the New York Police Department announced it would allow Sikh officers to wear both beards and turbans, and in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on behalf of a woman who was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because of her hijab.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.