Navy lifts ban on dreadlocks for women

The U.S. Navy is joining the Marines, Army and Air Force in ending its ban on dreadlocks for female sailors. The naval branch announced the reversal Tuesday in a live broadcast on its Facebook page.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson says the change won’t just make the Navy more formidable, but also more inclusive.

The Navy enlisted a six-person working group to recommend changes to grooming standards, based on feedback from their peers. As part of the decision, ponytails, buns and other styles will also be permissible for women in uniform so long as they don’t interfere with a sailor’s operational or safety needs. Male sailors are still required to keep their hair short.

"I am not my hair, but in a way, I am. This change is another way for me to represent who I am and feel like the Navy embraces it," Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqueline Leak said.

Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqueline Leak, a member of the working group, has worn dreadlocks since 2014. She led efforts to reverse the ban and says her fight involved years of research on the cultural and health aspects of wearing locs. She also surveyed dozens of female sailors affected by the ban.

RELATED: 21 photos of the Navy and Marines actually having fun (BI)

21 PHOTOS
21 photos of the Navy and Marines actually having fun (BI)
See Gallery
21 photos of the Navy and Marines actually having fun (BI)

A sailor from the USS Mobile Bay jumps into the Pacific Ocean.

(Photo via The White House)

Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey swim in the Philippine Sea.

(Photo via US Navy)

Sailors and Marines aboard the USS Essex run into the Celebes Sea.

(Photo via US Navy)    

Plunging into the Mediterranean Sea from the USS Carl Vinson.

(Photo via US Navy)

A sailor from the USS Antietam joins his fellow crew members in the Indian Ocean.

(Photo via US Navy)

A Marine from the USS Kearsarge dives into the waters of Aqaba, Jordan.

(Photo via US Navy)

A Marine from the USS Kearsarge dives into the waters of Aqaba, Jordan.

(Photo via US Navy)

Sailors play football in the well deck of the USS Cleveland off the coast of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.

(Photo via US Navy)

Sailors and Marines from the USS Iwo Jima enjoy the Gulf of Aden.

(Photo via White House Photo)

Sailors jump from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower into the North Arabian Sea.

(Photo via US Navy)

Sailors from US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge participate in a swim call after a Crossing the Line ceremony.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Fidel C. Hart/Released)

Sailors and Marines from the USS Mesa Verde swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Josue L. Escobosa/Released)

Sailors and Marines aboard the USS Fort McHenry jump off the stern gate into the Mediterranean Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Erik Luebke/Released)

Sailors jump from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower into the North Arabian Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Andrew Schneider/Released)

A sailor jumps off the stern gate of the USS New Orleans during a swim call in the Gulf of Aden.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro/Released)

Sailors, during a swim call, jump off an aircraft elevator aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson into the Arabian Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans/Released)

Sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower jump into the North Arabian Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Andrew Schneider/Released)

Sailors and Marines aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan dive off the stern gate during a swim call in the Mediterranean Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dylan Miles/Released)

Sailors aboard the USS Thach participate in a swim call during the Crossing the Line ceremony weekend, which commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the equator, in the Pacific Ocean.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steve Smith/Released)

Sailors assigned to the USS Carl Vinson swim during a swim call in the Arabian Sea.

(Photo via U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rosa A. Arzola/Released)

Military personnel watch as sailors from the USS Cleveland swim near Papua New Guinea.

(Photo via US Navy)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

“I wanted to make an argument so compelling that every reason my chain of command could give me for why dreadlocks were banned could easily be rebutted with facts,” she said.

Before, Leak opted to cover her shoulder-length dreadlocks by wearing a wig, which she says became more difficult as her hair grew. Options were even more limited for other female sailors. Some were forced to choose between cutting off their dreadlocks in favor of chemically straightened hair or facing harsh punishment.

In 2014, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a hospital corpsman, was honorably discharged for refusing to cut off locs she’d worn in a tight-knit bun for over a decade.

While challenges to military rules on hairstyles aren’t new, the controversy surrounding black hair reached a peak around the time of Sims’ discharge. As word spread, revisions to Army grooming regulations were leaked, revealing proposed changes to ban hairstyles common among women of color. The proposed policy, called AR 670-1, would have banned all natural hairstyles, including twists, braids, cornrows and Afros. 

Many criticized the regulations as specifically targeting black women. Once it had been made public, the policy faced immediate backlash, culminating in an open letter from the Congressional Black Caucus and an official review ordered by the Pentagon. The decision was ultimately reversed.

But that reversal didn’t include dreadlocks. First Lt. Whennah Andrews of the U.S. Army National Guard has been fighting for servicewomen’s right to wear them ever since. Together with fellow soldiers, Andrews began a campaign to challenge misconceptions many within the military have about dreadlocks’ cleanliness, cultural relevance and ease of use.

Leak enlisted Andrews for guidance when deciding to take on the Navy. Andrews says the Navy’s announcement is the final triumph signaling a victory for military diversity.

“When news broke that the Army lifted the ban on locs, I thought to myself, ‘It’s not a complete win until all of the branches authorize them,’” she said. “The unique challenges African-American servicewomen faced with trying to adhere to grooming policies were universal across the Department of Defense.”

This week’s decision makes the Navy the last branch of the military to drop grooming regulations that prohibit dreadlocks. The Marines first approved locs for women in 2015, and the Air Force announced late last year that dreadlocks would become an approved hairstyle after a review by its uniform board. The Army authorized dreadlocks for women earlier this year after having previously banned them since 2005.

For Leak, the reversal means she and many other locked servicewomen will no longer have to choose between sporting a hairstyle important to their culture and representing their country.

“I am not my hair, but in a way, I am,” Leak said. “This change is another way for me to represent who I am and feel like the Navy embraces it. It sends a message to sailors that we’re seen and valued for everything we are, including our service.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
Read Full Story