In a move towards increasing religious inclusion and accommodation, the US Air Force has updated its dress code policy to include an approval process for Muslims and Sikhs to wear turbans, beards, and hijabs. The updated “Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel” policy, announced on Feb 7., allows for formal requests of waivers to wear religious articles of faith to be approved as long as they are professional, “neat and conservative.”
Requests will only be denied if they are “based on real (not theoretical) compelling government interest,” including safety. In addition to permitting religious garments, the updated policy includes new hair guidelines that allow airmen to keep unshorn beards or hair; according to the update, beards longer than two inches must be rolled or tied. In the case of an emergency where a gas mask is required, the Air Force can order an airman to remove their hijab or turban or have them immediately shave. According to the Air Force Times, before denying a request, the Reserve or Guard must first “consult with the Air Force personnel directorate and obtain a legal review from the Air Force.”
According to the policy, for hijabs and turbans to be worn they must be made of a “subdued material in a color that closely resembles the assigned uniform,” including black, brown, green, tan, or navy blue. The material cannot have any designs, only an airman wearing the Airman Battle Uniform or Operational Camouflage Pattern uniform can wear a camouflage hijab or turban to match, the guidelines stated. An airman may also be directed to wear fire-resistant material by a commander.
The update requires that all requests must be reviewed within 30 days for cases in the U.S. and 60 days for all other cases. Prior to the update, a timeline was not in place for accommodation requests, individual requests by Sikhs and Muslims serving in the Air Force were granted on a case-by-case basis, but the approval process was often lengthy, CNN reported.
In 2018 Staff Sgt. Abdul Rahman Gaitan became the first Muslim airmen to receive a beard waiver for religious reasons, according to the Air Force Times. The following year in 2019, Airman First Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa became the first active-duty Sikh airman allowed to wear a turban, beard and long hair, as per religious obligation his hair is kept and covered in his turban. Most recently, in 2019 Capt. Maysaa Ouza made history as the first Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps officer to wear the hijab.
Religious civil rights organizations have spoken up in support of the updates made including the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Sikh Coalition. “We support these new guidelines as a step toward religious accommodation and inclusion for military personnel of all faiths,” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director, said in a statement. “Thousands of American Muslims and members of other minority faiths serve in our nation’s military and should be able to practice their faith while serving.”
According to the Air Force Times, the Sikh Coalition has helped more than 20 Sikh Americans serve in the military, including Airman First Class Singh Bajwa. “I am grateful to hear of this policy change, because it codifies in writing what I already know: The U.S. Air Force values the service and contribution of religious minorities like me,” Singh Bajwa said in a statement. “Accommodations, after all, aren’t about special treatment — they are about ensuring that religiously observant Sikhs and others don’t have to choose between staying true to our faith and serving our country.”
While many advocates praised the updates, they also acknowledged that more needs to be done. According to CNN, the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA) called on the US military to allow religious minorities to serve without exception. “The Department of Defense should have a consistent and department wide policy on religious accommodation,” Kamal Singh Kalsi, SAVA’s President said. ”Those who are committed and qualified to serve our country in uniform should be able to do so in a more streamlined and efficient manner.” In 2017, the U.S. Army became the first service to allow Muslim and Sikh soldiers to wear religious articles of faith- it took the Air Force three years to follow in its steps.