Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Beard & BYU: Part Four

This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.

Part Four: Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa

One of the best parts of transferring to BYU was getting the opportunity to take a Hindi class. Hindi, in addition to being the language of Bollywood cinema, is closely related to Urdu, a language with a poetic tradition I'm particularly enthralled with, and to my grandfather's native language, Punjabi (which, despite my great-grandmother's efforts, I'd never learned). Understandably, the small liberal arts college I came from did not offer Hindi, so I was very excited to be in a school that did.

As it turned out, my teacher, Akash, was a native Punjabi speaker! He was an international student from Deradun, in northern India, who was in his final year in a computer science degree. I also noticed he was wearing a kara, the steel bangle which is one of the "five Ks," symbols of Sikhism. Because Akash was clean-shaven, though, I assumed he either wasn't part of the Khalsa (the Sikh lay priesthood) or else wasn't orthodox.

I'd been in class for over a month before the subject somehow came up, and I found out I was wrong. Akash had been raised into a devout family and never cut his hair for the first eighteen years of his life. He was accepted to BYU and arrived still wearing long beard and carefully-combed hair under a turban. Only then did he discover that BYU would require him, also, to cut his hair and shave. He tried meeting with various officials to be granted an exemption, but was told that BYU no longer granted religious exemptions to this particular provision of its Honor Code. They had once done so, but were concerned that some people had faked religious convictions to be allowed beards, and the administration's solution was to stop granting any waivers.

Akash was left with basically two options: give up his admission and accompanying student visa and return to India and hope for the best for another school year somewhere else, or break his religious covenant to keep certain symbols as expressions of his faith in order to remain.

He talked to his family who, he told me, were split on the issue: his grandfather, in particular, didn't want Akash to compromise his faith and assimilate. His mother, in particular, was more concerned about the high stakes in terms of getting education and preparing himself for a stable economic future.

Akash chose to stay. When I knew him, though, he still hadn't reconciled himself to his decision. "Guru Gobind Singh told us: that's your identity" he said of the kesh, or uncut hair, "No one can take that away from you." And yet, in a way, they had: Akash had been given a choice, true: he didn't need to come to BYU (although I doubt they made a point of telling him that his faith wouldn't justify a rules exemption before he came); he didn't have to stay. And yet with all the opportunity BYU presented and the university's failure to make clear their position in advance, is it really fair to say this was all a matter of Akash's choice? Even if we are always technically free, certain pressures are strong enough to count as coercive.

Akash was forced, by a religious university, to compromise his own religion. That's wrong. It's especially wrong that for the sake of some church films I, a non-Sikh, could keep a long beard where as he, who had made a promise to God not to cut his hair and beard, had not been granted an exemption.

At the time, I thought of it basically as a tragic oversight: BYU officials, ignorant of Sikhism (they'd even initially listed Akash as Hindu on their records: a clerical error that particularly upset him as someone who grew up in the shadow of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots), just didn't understand the implications of their policy for Sikhs. If someone could just explain to them, in Mormon terms, what they were doing, they would see that the policy needed to change. . . wouldn't they?

Next up: in Part Five, taking action to encourage change.


  1. Wait... people faked religious convictions to be allowed beards? This confuses me.

    First of all, an overwhelming percentage of the BYU population is Mormon, and can't change their listed religious affiliation without also leaving the university. I've read the policy.

    So BYU was apparently concerned that some non-Mormons were pretending to be other types of non-Mormons in order to grow beards. Which suggests extremely high demand for beards.

    Or perhaps they were concerned that less-orthodox Sikhs and Muslims would pretend to be more orthodox in order to grow beards. Again,this requires high demand for beards.

    Let's face it: beards are weird, and very few people I know actually want to have them UNLESS they have strong cultural/religious reasons for doing so. Most people want to assimilate, and at BYU, wearing a beard is NOT the way to assimilate.

    So who in their right mind would fake a minority religious affiliation in order to look more like a minority?

    Did this actually ever happen, or did someone just think that there were way too many people on campus claiming to be Sikhs? Or does the Honor Code office think that the only thinking stopping every man on campus from growing a beard is the Honor Code?

    And if that is the case, and every man on campus does want a beard, why stop them? What's so dishonorable about a beard?

  2. All things I've wondered. I was seriously surprised when I first heard that the possibility of abuse was an actual concern.

    It does seem clear that the group at issue is non-Mormons claiming to be a different type of non-Mormon. I talked to a ward member who worked at BYU who had heard a rumor that the exemption was removed after a non-LDS footbal player claimed he had become a Rastafarian and needed to keep a certain hairstyle, but I've never confirmed the accuracy of that rumor.

    Obviously, I think it's far more important to respect the religious rights of the honest than to punish them in the name of cracking down on the dishonest (who are probably violating the Honor Code in far more harmful ways than growing beards). But, as subsequent installments in this series with show, I learned how to successfully communicate on the issue with the administrators who had control over this issue.

  3. On Halloween 2008, I told my English classes they could come in costume and earn a point or two of extra credit. One petite woman, who was about seven months pregnant, came as a strawberry. Many others dressed in costume of the places they served their missions.

    One student, however, came in wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a turban. He claimed to be dressed as a Sikh. He said, "They dress like everyone else, except they wear turbans." I protested because he didn't have uncut hair or a beard. (Of course, as a BYU student, he could have neither.) Maybe my protests errupted because he did not display understanding of the Khalsa or Sikh culture in general.

    I think this student's behavior is pretty typical of how little most Western, Christian people know about Sikhism. If a Sikh is identified only by his turban (poor Sikh women can't be identified since they need not wear turbans), we aren't understanding this religious group appropriately.

    Perhaps this sort of ignorance is what kept Akash from being allowed to keep his beard and long hair. Of course, his hair would be wound neatly into a comb inside of his turban, and his beard would be clean (though not clean cut) since those are also necessary practices in devout Sikhism.

    In Western society (and particularly at BYU), we see beards (especially long beards) as unkempt and unclean because of the negative associations with the hippy movement in the 1960s. I think some negative stereotypes are propogated because so few men in power wear beards, so we reduce the beard to slackers, the mentally ill, homeless, or creeps. The problem with this stereotype is that men from other cultures and religions who wear beards are reduced from being devout, spiritual, interesting, intellectual, or powerful, to being creeps.

    Something is amiss. . .

  4. I don't blame anyone for not knowing about Sikhism, but I do think there's a problem when, in the age of the internet, no one is taking 5 minutes to look information on Sikhism up when presented with a decision.

    You don't have to know everything, but having the humility to do a little research when faced with a decision seems pretty basic to me, especially in the "Information Age."

  5. .

    Wow. That's appalling.

    Sometimes I feel I waste way too much time defending BYU.

  6. BYU is a good place with a lot of great people and many good rules (I'm a HUGE fan of the very low alcohol consumption rate here, for example). And BYU gets more than its share of attacks. So don't feel bad for defending it--as long as you don't become defensive in the process.

    I think part of the reason terrible things like this happen is that BYU administrators feel constantly under fire, and then decided to shut out all input. That's bad.

    So: defend BYU but don't become so defensive that you can't also hear and thoughtfully evaluate and respond to what people are saying.

    Or something like that...

  7. Good to read this. (I am having a "read James Goldberg" evening.) I read your letter to the editor a couple of months ago in which you mentioned Akash, but I did not know all of this! Thanks for the information.


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