My mom and older sister would wrangle the knots out of my long, thick, black hair and tie it into a tight ponytail, as part of my commitment to the Sikh faith when I was younger.
I remember when I was in grade 6, I walked into my social studies class one day and saw a note on my desk that said: Stop shedding on my seat, I do not want to see your pube hair anymore. The bullies in school never let me forget that.
At that moment, I always thought of my hair as a curse.
Embarrassed, I didn’t tell anyone about the note. This is the first time I am sharing this story, one of many vivid memories in my childhood where my commitment to the Sikh faith was the cause of so many bad memories.
As a Sikh woman, I was taught to love my my hair as a blessing, a symbol from god not to conform to social pressures and to remain pious. That is, my k-es, the Punjabi word for hair, was to be grown out as cutting it would mean you are disrespecting the gift from god. Growing up in Canada, I know many young men and women who struggled with this mandate of Sikhism.
Fast forward to 2001, I was 11 years old and remember distinctly where I was when the twin towers were hit. I, alongside the rest of the world, was in utter shock. I was in grade seven and had a wonderfully hippie teacher, who normally began the day with a 5-minute yoga routine. But this morning, we began with a moment of silence.
Since then, being a brown skinned individual in a dominantly white country meant that with many interactions with the Western world I would be racialized. From randomly being selected in airport lines, to questions of why I did not wear my hair in a niqab/hijab, to basic misconceptions that I was to study Indian politics despite the fact that I was born and raised in Canada (it was a surprise to many when I decided to study the “Indian” Columbus “found” in the New World).
This past week, all these memories came up, as it does with any significant event that pinpoints brown skinned people in xenophobic, racist, and discriminatory remarks. I cannot say I was surprised by the poster that read “FU*K your Turban” plastered across my alum, the University of Alberta.
The poster included the website ImmigrationWatchCanada.org. I do not wish anyone to visit the website as it is a relentless, uninformed, and skewed understanding of the contribution of immigrants in Canada.
Though a spokesperson from the website denies any connection, I am one reader/observer who is not convinced, as websites like the aforementioned continue to perpetuate xenophobic and racist stereotypes of immigrants (especially if those immigrants are brown).
Following this story, the Sikh community has seen an outpouring of support, even Prime Minister Trudeau used the Edmonton’s antiracism hashtag #makeitaward to express his discontent towards the individuals responsible for the poster.
Defense Minister Sajjan used his social media account to express his pride in his turban, and Darshan Singh Khan, stood up to speak to parliament on his dismay and shock at the hate expressed towards his community.
And now, we see posters replacing across the university to “FUNK your Turban” and to “ROCK your Turban”.
The Sikh women in our community also need to hear the support and love for being the gatekeepers of our religion, the role women play to uphold our men and children is often forgotten.
I want to take opportunities like this to shed light on the difficulty of respecting the tenants of Sikhism for women, without disrespecting the struggle our brothers face each day as they rock their turbans.
Among the conversations of the turban, the men are often targeted by hate speech. And while the impact on Sikh men is important to discuss, so is the role gender has in Sikh communities. For men, the issue is being labeled violent and an extremist, and often conflated with the Islamophobia facing our Muslim brothers and sisters. That in itself is problematic to see our brothers face such hatred.
However, women, who proudly grow out their hair and for the women who wrap that in a turban also face this criticism along with the depiction that women should be hairless, that our skin color should be lighter, and that we as Indian women are often viewed as passive or oppressed individuals, who should not involve themselves in politics. There are countless experiences among Sikh women, where we have heard that Indian women are not attractive because they are “hairy” or that they are controlled by the men in families.
Yet, the experiences of women in my family and my extended family of Sikh sisters, is neglected in conversations related to racism, often sparked by misunderstanding of the turban. It is no surprise that as a young Sikh woman I feel the role of women in our communities is usually pushed to the sidelines.
Women are pressured by community members to be pious, pure, and passive. This has resulted in the neglect of women and the disempowerment of Sikh women in our communities. While men are told to earn the big bucks, to build a career and to voice their opinions, women are taught how to make the perfect round fluffy roti, to keep their opinions to themselves and to get an education to make you more eligible for marriage.
And while I understand the frustration of my Sikh brothers, as a woman I want to emphasis inclusion (no matter your class, race, or gender) which are pillars of Sikhism. In short, women deserve an equal voice to engage in conversations impacting our community and faith.
Women and men in my community face a lot of shame, bullying, and racism for practicing their faith and for merely walking the halls of the ivory tower as a brown skinned person. I take much pride in the opportunistic Sikhs who have used this event to stand up and educate their classmates and the general public about the common misconceptions of Sikhism and the turban. The stories I have shared here are not unique to me and so I know the significance of receiving such support for the Sikh community following this hateful act.