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Sikhs fight back against new Pentagon dress code

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Washington –  American Sikh leaders, disappointed that new Pentagon dress code requirements released on Wednesday do not go as far as the Sikhs would like, are turning to Congress to increase the pressure on the military.

The Sikhs, who want looser restrictions on turbans, head scarfs and beards in the military, are collecting signatures on a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from congressional leaders asking the army to “modernize their appearance regulations so that patriotic Sikh Americans can serve the country they love while abiding by their articles of faith.”

Twenty congressional representatives – including Reps. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.; Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.; and Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – have signed the letter, which states that Sikh soldiers “wear turbans and maintain beards in a neat and conservative manner, both in accordance with operational requirements and their Sikh religious beliefs.”

The turbans and beards do not interfere with the soldiers’ ability to wear helmets and gas masks, the letter says.

The Defence Department announced on Wednesday that the military would accommodate individual expressions of “sincerely held beliefs” unless such expressions affect “military readiness or unit cohesion.” The new policy was expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and other groups who wear clothing or beards as part of their religion.

Though the new policy explicitly states that defence officials will try to accommodate religious beliefs, it still requires that a service member who wants to wear a beard or turban or other article of clothing for religious reasons first get permission from the military.

Sikh representatives say that does not go far enough, pointing to the small number of exceptions given to Sikhs in the past. And, they say, it still leaves the judgment in the hands of commanders who could, at any time, decide that an offending beard must be shorn.

“There is still a presumptive ban, which would discourage any recruit,” said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy with the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group. “If I sign up to join the Army for example, and wear a turban, there’s no guarantee my accommodation request will be granted.”

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of what is today northwestern India. Five articles of Sikh faith were established to give Sikhs a sense of identity when they were chafing under the Islamic Mughal court of Delhi. The five articles are unshorn hair, a comb, a wristband made of iron or steel, underwear (a symbol of sexual modesty and personal hygiene) and a sword. The turban is worn as a sign of religious respect but also as a practical matter, to bind up long hair.

For the Pentagon, the issue is the uniformity in appearance that U.S. military leaders have for decades deemed necessary for order and discipline. Beyond the history of clean-shaven American soldiers, some military officials say that safety concerns, including difficulties in fitting a helmet over a turban, are also a factor.

But Sikh advocates say that the policies are as discriminatory as racially segregated units were to blacks, combat restrictions were to women, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was to gay men and women.

Until 1974, Sikhs were allowed to keep their unshorn hair and beards in the military. After that, stricter rules regarding personal appearance were enacted; Sikhs on active duty at that time were allowed to keep their articles of faith, but future recruits were required to seek case-by-case exceptions, a time-consuming process.

“Depending on how they are implemented, some aspects of the new Department of Defense rules may be a step in the right direction,” Crowley said in a statement on Thursday.

But he added that more needs to be done. “Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation’s military.”

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