January 2015 - Photos of the Month 12

Arub Shaikh, Rashid Mehmood, Hammad Javed, Mujahed Shaikh and Ahmed Salah, left to right, gather for a Friday prayer service in the Wilkinson Student Center at Brigham Young University in Provo on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. The university recently made clarifications to the policy to include three specific areas of exemption for male students to have a beard, including a religious exemption. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

PROVO -- When Hamad Javed was approaching high school graduation in Pakistan, he started to take his Muslim upbringing more seriously.

His dad had grown a beard all his life, and Javed decided he wanted to commit to doing the same.

“I made a vow that I would have a beard for the rest of my life,” Javed said.

But when he came to Brigham Young University, that all changed.

“I grew out my beard and then, basically, I got into BYU,” he said.

Javed is one of a handful of Muslims attending the LDS Church-owned university. He is also one who is welcoming a recent clarification in BYU’s men-must-be-clean-shaven policy.

The university recently made clarifications to the policy to include three specific areas of exemption for male students to have a beard.

The three areas are for students with a medical condition, involved in a theatrical production or for religious observance or practice -- for example, Muslims like Javed.

“Although exceptions have been given in the past, BYU has now formally identified three areas where exceptions to BYU’s beard policy may be considered,” BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told the Herald on Wednesday.

Javed said he had grown “a full-fledged beard, as big of a beard as I could have,” when he started preparing himself for coming to BYU. His brother had attended BYU and was able to receive a beard exemption, but a few years later when Javed arrived, the BYU chaplain told him the religious exemption policy had been abused, and that Javed would have to shave.

“I had been preparing myself that might happen,” he said. “Ultimately I was sad to shave it off — but sad isn’t the right word. When I shaved it off, I had a reason to shave it off. I could either lie, or I could just shave it off.”

Meaning, Javed considered getting a medical exemption. To do so requires shaving for three days in a row, after which the student must visit with a doctor from the university’s student health center, who in turn makes a recommendation to the university’s honor code office.

But Javed said shaving was a better option.

Some Muslim men choose to wear a beard, Javed said, to follow the Muslim prophet Mohammad. Javed said because his religious devotion has deepened, he understands BYU’s policy against beards.

“The religion professors that I asked about the beard policy said it was something the prophet said was important,” Javed said. “Kind of comparing that to my prophet, I understand because I want to follow my prophet, they want to follow their prophet.”  

But the beard ban originated when Ernest L. Wilkinson, a university president -- but not an LDS prophet -- said in the 1960s that men at BYU should be clean shaven.

And BYU’s policy isn’t exactly religious, since the LDS Church has no policy regarding members and beards, although the church’s missionaries and church employees must be clean shaven.

“But it kind of feels like there are politics involved,” Javed said.

Jenkins said BYU students who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shouldn’t try for a religious exemption, even if they’re following after a Mormon prophet and the university’s namesake, Brigham Young, who had a full beard.

“A beard is not something that is mandated by the LDS faith,” Jenkins said. “[Being LDS] would not be a legitimate reason.”

Jenkins said there is no change in the policy, but rather a clarification on exemptions that were previously being made on a case-by-case basis. Students will still have to petition for those exemptions, but the three areas are where BYU saw a lot of “legitimate requests,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins also said the beard clarification is no indication of any other future changes.

“The dress and grooming guidelines that men are to be clean shaven has not changed, and I do not foresee it changing,” she said. 

Thomas Larsen is a senior engineering student at BYU who has received a medical exemption. He said he doesn’t get any weird looks or stigma from students or professors. That may be because his student ID card has a “BE” for beard exemption.

But Adam, a senior who asked that his last name be withheld and who has been growing a beard for more than a year and a half without a beard exemption, said he doesn’t have any problems — even in the school’s testing center, where the university's Honor Code is notoriously enforced the most strictly.  

“There’s not really a big story. I just don’t shave and nobody seems to care,” Adam said. “It speaks to the fact that this rule was set up at a specific time, and the cultural cues that led to it were a little silly. I get why they did it, but that cultural context around beards has changed significantly over time.

"My experience shows that people just don’t care. And that speaks to the fact that it’s a cultural interpretation of what a beard means.”

Both Adam and Larsen said they know people who have “abused the system,” like stretching the truth to tell doctors that shaving is painful or that they have a skin condition.

And that’s what frustrates Javed the most.

“I hope people don’t misuse the new policy,” he said. “Even if you misuse it, just don’t tell anybody.”

Amy McDonald is the Politics and South County Reporter for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at (801) 344-2549 or amcdonald@heraldextra.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amymcdonald89