Army: Soldiers can wear turbans, beards, hijabs

West Point graduate, Bronze Star Medal recipient and Sikh soldier Capt. Simratpal Singh in his military uniform with the approved religious accommodations of turban and beard. Photo courtesy of Becket Law

WASHINGTON (RNS) New Army regulations will allow soldiers to wear turbans, beards and hijabs under most circumstances, reflecting a change Sikhs have sought for years.

“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,” wrote Secretary of the Army Eric K. Fanning in a Tuesday (Jan. 3) memo.

Illustration of approved beard lengths for religious accommodation. Illustration courtesy of the Department of Defense

Illustration of approved beard lengths for religious accommodation. Illustration courtesy of the Department of Defense

In March, the Army concluded that permitting beards for medical reasons but banning them for religious reasons is a discriminatory bar to service for Sikhs, who are forbidden by their faith to cut their hair and beards.

With that decision, Capt. Simratpal Singh, a West Point graduate and Bronze Star recipient, was the first to win Army approval to continue on active duty while maintaining his religiously mandated beard and turban.

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Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, which serves as co-counsel for Singh with Becket Law, hailed the decision but said more work is needed.

“While we still seek a permanent policy change that enables all religious minorities to freely serve without exception,” said Kaur in a statement, “we are pleased with the progress that this new policy represents for religious tolerance and diversity by our nation’s largest employer.”

Illustration of approved turban use for religious accommodation. Illustration courtesy of the Department of Defense

Illustration of approved turban use for religious accommodation. Illustration courtesy of the Department of Defense

Soldiers will not be granted approval for accommodations if a commander determines “the request is not based on a sincerely held religious belief,” the memo states. If there is a “specific, concrete hazard … that cannot be mitigated by reasonable measures,” the accommodation can be denied.

Previously accommodated soldiers will be given official approval by Jan. 10 that will continue through their careers, barring exceptions.

Fanning said the Army is researching protective masks that can be used in hazardous environments by bearded soldiers. Until then, soldiers with these accommodations will not be permitted to attend military schools that require training on toxic chemical agents or may have to be clean-shaven in certain tactical situations.

The regulations note that hijabs, or headscarves worn by some Muslim women, should be “made of a subdued material in a color that closely resembles the assigned uniform.” A camouflage pattern can be used to match the combat uniform, and a soldier may be required to use flame-resistant material for the hijab.

The new directive includes illustrations detailing how the hijab should surround the face (not covering areas from the eyebrows to the chin) and the length of beards (2 inches maximum). Beards longer than 2 inches “must be rolled and/or tied to achieve the required length,” the rules say.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • Hasn’t the British Army been dealing with the issue for over a century? There is a long history of Sikhs and devout Muslims serving in their ranks with plenty of accommodation.

    This is not a novel issue. Just new to Americans.

  • But what about the Christians? How can other religions be accommodated in the military of the US, founded as a Christian country?…Obviously Christian religious freedom is being attacked !! Where is Liberty Council, Falwell, Cruz, Huckabee?

  • Since World War 1. I am actually shocked that this is just becoming an accommodation issue in the US.

  • First of all the US was not founded AS a Christian nation. The Constitution makes no mention of God, Jesus or Christian. Religion is mentioned once – there can be no religious test for holding office. It was founded BY Christians but as a secular government. Secondly, how are Christians not accommodated?

  • I don’t think the military had any religious reasons. They love uniformity and strict dress codes. Other issues related to safety, such as making sure gas masks fit, etc.

  • Agreed. I think it is a sensible accommodation provided troops assigned to combat units will have access to protective masks that will function to create an effective seal against anti-personnel agents.

  • I would surmise that their commanders didn’t much care given how cheap life is in the Middle East.

  • Actually several founders were deists, not theists. Some could easily be argued as atheists, but at the least its clear they weren’t christians.

  • I agree. Part of making a soldier is breaking them of their individuality and retraining them to hive mentality.