For the first time, a Sikh American man was granted religious accommodation to keep his beard, turban and unshorn hair while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, who joined the military branch in 2017, had been unable to observe his practice due to grooming and dress codes, which enforce strict standards for both men and women.
In a press release on Thursday, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) announced that Bajwa has been granted permission to wear articles of faith while on active duty.
“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” the airman said. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”
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Sikh men are explicitly forbidden to cut and shave their hair under the Rehat Maryada, the religion’s code of conduct.
They must also wear a turban to cover their hair after being tied, typically in the form of a bun.
According to the Air Force Times, Bajwa initially asked if he could request a waiver for the matter during tech training in Charleston, South Carolina a year ago.
“I asked my military trainer and she helped me find the proper waiver application, then I waited until I reached my next assignment,” he said.
Bajwa was granted accommodation after gaining representation from the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country,” said ACLU attorney Heather L. Weaver. “We’re pleased that the Air Force granted our client’s request, and we hope that all branches of the military come to recognize the importance of religious inclusion and diversity.”
In 2016, Capt. Simratpal Singh, a decorated Sikh American officer and combat veteran, received a long-term religious accommodation from the U.S. Army to serve with a beard, turban and long hair, according to NBC News.
The following year, the military branch updated its rules to make it easier for Sikh and Muslim Americans to serve.