In September, one Sikh American woman from Ohio became an inspiration to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.
Balpreet Kaur was standing in line at the airport when an individual surreptitiously took her photo and posted it on the website Reddit, with the caption: “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.”
The object of the photo was an attempt at mockery. Among the first 100 responses to the posting on Reddit were harsh and derogatory comments about Balpreet Kaur’s facial hair, gender, ethnicity, and religion. And, what began as mockery on one specific website was beginning to spread virally on the internet.
And then, when Balpreet Kaur discovered the posting of her photo, she responded to the posting:
Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled 🙂 However, I’m not embarrased or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positve] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a seperateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. 🙂 So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together tshirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. 🙂 I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.
Balpreet Kaur’s amazingly graceful, confident, and humble response elicited a wave of positive reaction and initiated conversations about women, Sikhs, and the Sikh identity. She began to receive significant support among Reddit readers and beyond, and major news outlets in the United States and internationally were reporting on how this young Sikh woman transformed an attempt at mockery of her into admiration. Said one Reddit commenter:
Dear Miss Balpreet Kaur,
Thank you very much, you’ve given so many of the readers/Redditors an amazing gift.
I’m middle aged with coke bottle glasses and deep circles around my eyes. (combination of the vision issues since I was very young, and now + middle age and + illness)… But I needed a reminder that those things are just not that important.
thank you, that’s JUST EXACTLY what I needed today.
I’m printing out your reply and putting it on my fridge.
So transformative and disarming was Balpreet Kaur’s expression, that even the individual who originally posted the photo would apologize:
I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.
…I’ve read more about the Sikh faith and it was actually really interesting. It makes a whole lot of sense to work on having a legacy and not worrying about what you look like. I made that post for stupid internet points and I was ignorant.
…So reddit I’m sorry for being an [expletive] and for giving you negative publicity.
Balpreet, I’m sorry for being a closed minded individual. You are a much better person than I am
Sikhs, I’m sorry for insulting your culture and way of life.
Balpreet’s faith in what she believes is astounding.
…I Just want to clarify that yes this apology is terribly and horribly worded; but hopefully you realize that IT IS sincere. It was more of a general apology to Reddit, the Sikh community, and anyone offended. I apologized to Balpreet in private via e-mail and plan on meeting up with her next time I’m at Ohio State. I don’t think I did anything special, it was just an apology. Just because you’re anonymous doesn’t mean you can be an [expletive].
Balpreet Kaur’s response is an inspiration for many Sikhs and non-Sikhs, but especially so for Sikh women who often struggle with issues around competing expectations of faith and beauty. As I wrote at the time:
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.
For many Sikhs, not only was the way in which she handled the internet attack on her a model for us to follow, but so is her relationship with her faith. There are definitely lessons for all of us to learn.
And, she wasn’t just an inspiration for Sikhs. At the end of 2012, Balpreet Kaur was named Huffington Post Religion’s Person of the Year:
In past years we have made lists of ‘most influential’ religious leaders which have included the Pope and the Dalai Lama. However, when the HuffPost religion editors thought about the person we admired most in the last year, the unanimous choice was Ms. Kaur.
…Balpreet Kauer [sic] enriched all of us on the internet with knowledge of her own faith and showed that grace, kindness and goodness are the best antidote to ignorance online as well as offline.
Incidentally, the name “Balpreet” is a combination of two words: bal meaning “mighty”, and preet meaning “love”. What better representation of the meaning of those words than Balpreet Kaur, whose story is one of the Top 5 Sikh American Stories of 2012.