More than just ethnic bigotry: Sikh articles of faith and women

Ohio college student Balpreet Kaur was unaware that her photo had been taken and posted online. (source: Huffington Post)

Ohio college student Balpreet Kaur was unaware that her photo had been taken and posted online. (source: Huffington Post)

Much has been written recently about the case of Ohio college student Balpreet Kaur. When her photo was surreptitiously taken and posted to the website Reddit as an object of mockery, her response to this demonstrated so much grace and eloquence, that she instead became an inspiration to many — so much so that even the person who originally posted the photo apologized.

Balpreet Kaur is an inspiration, and her situation provides a learning for many of us Sikhs and others who must deal with pointed fingers and muffled laughs based on physical appearance.  One can only feel a sense of pride in how she handled the circumstance in which she found herself.

Balpreet Kaur’s situation reminded me of a recent article in the Seattle Times about women who wear headdress as an article of faith. In the article, a turban-wearing Sikh woman, Inderpal Kaur, shares her experience:

“Most women just want to fit in; they want to look pretty so they put their hair down, they wear fancy little clips. But I feel I have to stand out for my religion. I don’t think there’s any shame in it. Wearing a turban does not make you less of a woman.”

Indeed, while we associate uncut hair and the turban with Sikh men, and associate the discrimination around those articles of faith with confusion and ignorance of ethnicity, these articles of faith, when maintained by Sikh women, bring to the fore more complicated issues that extend beyond bigotry and ethnic prejudice.

In the context of the maintenance of Sikh articles of faith by Sikh women, we must consider gender issues and cultural stereotypes around beauty, and also about the demands that society (both Sikh and non-Sikh, eastern and western) places on women to surrender to what we are long told should be beautiful or attractive.

As one woman wrote in a comment related to Balpreet Kaur, “it’s just HAIR.” And yet, it isn’t.

Unfortunately, this issue is not often openly discussed. However, the topic of hair as an article of faith  and the conflicting pressures this brings for Sikh women was addressed back in February at the last Sikholars conference in California in an enlightening presentation by Kirpa Kaur:

As I wrote after watching her presentation:

It was a complicated topic, to be sure, and one that I, as a Sikh male with uncut hair, have not explored to a large extent other than to reiterate my own values about this topic. Sikh males have their own issues around attractiveness and self-image where it comes to uncut hair, however, the conversation as it pertains to Sikh females is in a different arena that involves patriarchy and conflicting messages of what is right, and what is beautiful, insisted by male-dominated Sikh and Western cultures.

In this context, Balpreet Kaur’s strength is even more inspiring.


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