For the first time, the Air Force has granted a Sikh airman permission to wear a turban, beard and long hair, following the practices of his faith.
Airman 1st Class Harpreetinder Singh Bajwa, a crew chief at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, is now the first active airman who has been authorized to adhere to Sikh religious grooming and dress principles while serving in the Air Force.
“I’m overjoyed that the Air Force has granted my religious accommodation,” said Bajwa. “Today, I feel that my country has embraced my Sikh heritage, and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity.”
A first-generation American, born to an immigrant family, Bajwa enlisted in the Air Force in 2017, eager to give back by serving his country. At the time, he was not permitted to practice certain Sikh beliefs due to Air Force grooming and dress rules.
Sikhs tie their hair in a bun on top of their head, which is then covered by a turban. In the Rehat Maryada, the code of conduct and conventions for Sikhism, it is explicitly written that Sikh men do not cut their hair, shave and must wear a turban. The Rehat Maryada, however, conflicts with current Air Force regulations on uniform and grooming appearances.
In 2018, the Air Force granted its first religious accommodation beard waiver to a Muslim airman, allowing him to wear a beard while in uniform. Previously, the only exceptions for active-duty personnel were medical waivers. There are also exceptions for Air Force Reservists serving less than 30 days.
Bajwa says be initially asked if he could request a waiver during tech training a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina, and said he was never told “no” by leadership.
“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.
The airman credits the combined efforts of Air Force Leadership, the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union for his success in being granted permission three months ago to adhere to his faith in uniform.
“I’m extremely happy I can practice my faith and serve my country,” said Bajwa.
Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, applauded the Air Force’s decision.
“No one should have to choose between following their faith or serving their country," she said in a news release. "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.”
Army Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi Singh, president of SAVA, added: “As one of the first Sikh service members to receive a religious accommodation from the Army, I’m proud to see Bajwa become the first active Airman allowed to wear his Sikh articles of faith while in uniform. Sikhs have a long history of serving in militaries around the world, and I’m confident that Airman Bajwa will represent that tradition honorably.”