In February, the United States’ Air Force approved new guidelines and protocols for its “Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel” code. The Air Force created a new standardized process for quickly approving service member requests for religious clothing and hair-style accommodation based on an individual’s specific faith. Any Air Force service member who submits a request while located within the United States can expect to receive a final review of their application within 30 days of submission. All other cases will be handled via a 60-day review process.
Men and women whose applications aren’t rejected can expect to receive a career-long approval so that they never again have to re-apply for a religious clothing or hair-style accommodation. The new guidelines mostly guarantee, except with a few cases, that members of various religious groups can receive faster approval to wear specific clothing and hair styles that conform to their religious beliefs as long as they maintain a “neat and conservative” appearance. Any head covering must consist of material in the same or matching color/colors or camouflage as a service member’s uniform.
Many service men and women and their loved ones and supporters were pleased to learn about the new guidelines and protocols. The Council of American-Islamic Relations’ National Communications Director, Ibrahim Hooper, stated that CAIR supports the guidelines “as a step toward religious accommodation and inclusion for military personnel of all faiths.”
In the past, a Muslim or Sikh, for example, had to go through a difficult process to request and receive approval to follow their religious beliefs by wearing a beard, long hair, hijab or turban. In previous years, some service members had to wait six months or longer to receive approval. For example, in 2019, it took six months for Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, the first active duty airman to gain the accommodation, to receive approval to wear unshorn hair and a turban per his Sikh faith. In 2019, two other airmen, Airmen 1st Class Sunjit Singh Rathour and Jaspreet Singh, also received approval to wear unshorn hair and turbans. The year prior, in 2018, an officer with the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Maysaa Ouza, received approval to wear a Muslim hijab while serving in her position. She is allowed to wear it with and without her uniform cap, as needed.
Some current service members and veterans believe that the military hasn’t done enough with this new set of rules and protocols because the update and acceptance of other faiths in relation to clothing and hair-style accommodation only applies to the Air Force. The Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SAVA) and Sikh Coalition have requested that all branches of the military allow any service member from a religious minority to have the opportunity to serve as their faith dictates without the need to request an accommodation.
Although representatives from both organizations are pleased with the Air Force’s decision, they want to see a more broad-based change: The President of the Sikh American Veterans Alliance, Kamal Singh Kalsi, stated that the Department of Defense needs a “consistent and department wide policy.” An attorney for the Sikh Coalition, Giselle Klapper, stated that those she represents are eager for a “blanket proclamation.” Since the new code went into effect, the Air Force has processed many applications.