Yesterday, it was announced that the Pentagon will be lifting its 1994 ban on allowing women solidiers from serving in combat situations:
[Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta’s move comes in his final weeks as Pentagon chief and just days after President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech in which he spoke passionately about equal rights for all. The new order expands the department’s action of nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. Panetta’s decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.
The policy change comes as a result of the changing nature of US military operation and strategy, but also because of the demands of current military campaigns, and removes the presumption that only men can make effective soldiers:
“Not every woman makes a good soldier, but not every man makes a good soldier. So women will compete,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif. “We’re not asking that standards be lowered. We’re saying that if they can be effective and they can be a good soldier or a good Marine in that particular operation, then give them a shot.”
Coincidentally, Sikh Americans, who have a long and reputed history of military service around the world, have also been seeking the same opportunity in the United States:
During World War I, Bhagat Singh Thind was the only Sikh Soldier in the U.S. Army to serve in combat duty. More than 80,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting for the Allied Forces during the World Wars. Today, Sikhs serve in the militaries of India, England, Canada, Austria and the United Nations, among others.
On account of our articles of faith (specifically, the turban and uncut hair), Sikh Americans are excluded from serving in the US military unless they apply for an temporary exception from a 1984 change in policy that made conspicuous religious articles of faith unacceptable, and other regulations that currently forbid the keeping of a beard:
U.S. military instructions note that “hair and grooming practices required or observed by religious groups are not included within the meaning of religious apparel,” and therefore do not fall under the overall religious accommodation guidance that authority to approve requests are normally given to individual commands, as specified by each service (although denials of requests are subject to review at the “Service Headquarters level”).
Exemptions from the policy can be made by application and are decided upon by higher levels in the military. However, these decisions are specific to the individual in their particular assignment. In 2010, three Sikhs were able to receive this exception to serve: Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Simran Lamba. According to Tejdeep Singh Rattan:
“I was told there were two challenges to allow Sikhs in the military. The first was that we could not put the Kevlar helmet on our heads, which I do every day,” the captain said. “The second thing was fitting the gas mask properly.”
Not only was Tejdeep Singh able to conform to US military standards (including fitting of a helmet and gas mask), he outperformed many others in meeting the requirements to serve:
“As a commander, I knew someone was coming to me with an exception. I was curious how it would fit with the standards of the regulation,” said Capt. John Lopez, commander, Company A, 187th Medical Battalion. “From Day one, Captain Rattan has been an ideal individual. He has spent hundreds of dollars in finding or creating headgear that conforms with his exception.”
Despite that Sikhs have demonstrated the ability to serve effectively and with distinction (including with the ability to wear a helmet and a gas mask) the military’s current policies do not formally accommodate the turban or uncut hair. Though soldiers such as Tejdeep Singh or Kamaljit Singh Kalsi have served beyond standard, the US military only provides case-by-case exemptions rather than a full accommodation, for which Sikhs are required to apply. In other words, an observant Sikh American does not enjoy the same opportunity to serve — even when he or she can — due to the US military’s current policies around grooming and appearance.
In this is the basis of the discrimination that Sikhs are up against. In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Simran Jeet Singh writes:
Rather than having to incessantly argue to receive exemptions from the ban, the Assistant Attorney General, myself and a number of civil rights advocates would like to see a repealing of this ban altogether.
Recognizing that there are valid criticisms of recent US military campaigns and operations (particularly of rationale used in going to war, the tactics used and the consequences thereof), we should not confuse those issues with the civil rights concerns pertaining to Americans being allowed to serve without discrimination, and having a military that is consistent with the diversity of its citizens and the country’s principles. If Sikhs have demonstrated the ability to wear a helmet, wear a gas mask, and meet appearance standards, there should be no reason why an accommodation cannot be made.
In recent years, we have seen the US military retract the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that required gays and lesbians to serve in secret or be discharged from the military, and now we are seeing combat operations be opened to qualified women. In the near future, perhaps we will also see the full accommodation of Sikhs in the US military as a similar reflection of the incorporation of Sikh Americans in our society.