Sikh Identity: Separate but Equal?

Guest blogged by Birpal Kaur

Over this past weekend there was an article published in the Los Angeles Times of the  experiences of Sikh women and maintaining kesh.  This article addresses the journey and relationship with kesh, looking at societal pressures as well as a personal journey, and in this case, it happened to be my journey.  The article idea was born out of a series of conversations I had with a reporter with the LA Times. I would also like to reiterate that this article is not about me as a representative of any Sikh organization I am part of.

Most of the feedback I have received has been complimentary, though some has been accusatory and judgmental. For all the commentary: Thank you for time, the words, and the emotions—whether I agree with it or not.  My major concern, however, does not come from the extremely personal nature of the story you read, it comes from the fact that I felt misrepresented, and the issue highlighted was misrepresented.  The last 48 hours or so I have been thinking about why, and that is what I would like to share.

My major concern is that the entire concept of hair removal is framed around men and marriage. This is problematic. Whereas the overall idea of double-standards concerning men and women is not a new one—I do not believe that there is only one person, or gender to blame.  Perhaps it is what manifests as the topical problem, but the issues around hair removal and Sikh women are not, and should not be limited to this scope. My journey and struggles with my kesh seem to be conveniently minimized to be about men.  The androcentric way that the issue of hair removal solely exists in a space with men and marriage is demeaning and incorrect as a reflection of my personal journey.

The outcome I am looking for is not about a Singh validating my kesh, my lifestyle, or my being. It is to bring the reality of influence decisions about kesh to the surface. Separating issues of hair and our Sikhi saroop into ‘categories’ according to biological sex only does a disservice to every one of us. My Sikhi has never been defined by my potential or future husband.  My Sikhi is not something that can “break”.  My relationship with my Guru is not about a man. This not to discredit, or overlook the fact that for some women, marriage can be a factor that influences their decision to keep their kesh, a decision that is filled with shades of gray.  I know it has been that experience for others, which is what prompted me to bring the issue out from the shadows and into the public conversation.

The reason I wanted to share my journey, is to hopefully allow even one other Kaur something to relate to. Empowerment of being is two-fold, and this article was in no way supposed to put full blame on all men.  There are most definitely those men that respect and support women for struggles, and at times insecurities, for the human value.

Women need to vocalize, search, and possibly explore more, and there is an individual ownership . However humans everywhere thrive off of support, love and understanding. I believe we need to openly encourage the types of relationships that give all of us equal opportunity and equity to recognize the divinity within us.  Allowing the guru’s pyaar to permeate our beings—that is our goal.  It is a goal that gurbani acknowledges comes in part through the love and soul connection with a life partner.  It is something we can work on together, but only if we stop hiding behind double standards and expectations of defined beauty.

At a young age Sikh girls are put in the position to believe that our identity is different. Though this may be different depending on where we live, a number of Sikh boys have expressed the amount of support they get from the community to keep their kesh.  A candid conversation I was having with a chota veer of mine brought out the statement that I felt started the right conversation.  He said “[Boys] get talked to about their dhari’s every week, it might be overkill, but it is constantly discussed and supported as a community,” but that is how concerned out community is.

In my experience as a Sikh women who has stumbled on this journey of maintaining all her kesh I reflected on the bhenji’s, aunties, and more who come talk to me about a child, a sibling, a niece that is an adolescent girl, getting made fun of for her hairy legs, or perhaps a ‘mustache’.  This young girl wanted to shave like her friends at school, or her friends at the gurdwara, she just wants a ‘clean’ face/eyebrows etc.  The conversations around this part of her identity do not go nearly the same way as it does for a young man contemplating the same about his dhari.

The reality is that, like my story relayed in the article, some young girls start this hair removal process in secret, thinking naively that our parents will not find out.  Girls: They know.  Parents: we do not know that you know, it is your job to have those discussions with your children.  Most of us grew up with enough privilege to have parents that paid enough attention to us to recognize something different in attitude, in our bodies, and our hearts.  The problem, in my humble opinion, comes from several perspectives. Linking back to the statement from my chota veer, as a Punjabi Sikh community we do not have nearly enough discussions, role models, and space in which we provide support, love and guidance for our Sikh girls.  It is these girls that turn into mothers, sisters, and partners.

Growing up, and often still, I have heard lectures and workshops given on how the “…Sikh Panth is in the hands of Sikh women.”  The lectures usually revolve around the statements that include the following:

  • A Sikh girl must marry a sardar
  • A Sikh girl must make sure she makes the sardar boys around her feel confident and accepted with their dastaars and dharis

Because yes, as young Sikh girls, all there is to think about are boys and their confidence, their identity, and their plight for being different in society. It completely takes away the individual power of a Sikh adolescent as both Sikh girls are forced to uplift Sikh boys, and Sikh boys are forced to depend on these girls.  Reinforcing the sentiment of basing one’s self esteem and sense of pride on the opinions of the opposite sex.  This is not empowerment.

I firmly believe that Sikhi offers us a holistic approach to living a healthy life with mind, body, spirit, and heart.  By not acknowledging Sikh women’s identity in the same communal spaces we acknowledge Sikh men’s issues, we inherently deliver the message of separate but equal. Bringing up Sikh women and hair is not in an effort to structure or even define every Sikh female’s identity.  That is not my place to do so, nor would I want to.  Instead, allow us to utilize our sangat to provide support and encourage each other.  Let us acknowledge the struggle and plight for Sikh women and men with their identity.

Our gurus have given each individual the ability to recognize and act upon our sovereignty as humans.  Sovereignty that once tapped into allows us to embody the power of chardi-kala.  Sovereignty that gives us control and respect for our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and souls.  This is a guru given gift.  No one can ever take that away.  But when we raise our youth to believe that members of the opposite sex hold all the power when it comes to our own self-acceptance, what are we really doing?

I’ve had this conversation so many times over the years.  Over the years my own thoughts and opinions have changed. Over time my pyaar and connection to my guru has grown.  My connections to my sangat have grown. My relationships and understanding has grown. I have grown, and will continue to—because of my guru.  I am divine because of the divinity inside me. Period.  That divinity does not get to be defined by a social contract, other relationships, or individuals in my life and not. It is not defined by marriage, or the pursuit of companionship.  It has the potential to be enhanced by the right companion—but will not be limited to that scope.  It is too powerful, it is too great.

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15 Responses to “Sikh Identity: Separate but Equal?”

  1. Gender Kaur says:

    Wow Birpal, this is such beautiful and profound writing. Thank you for sharing! We hear a lot about external threats to Sikhi, but I believe the biggest threat to us is us–I think we diminish Sikhi every time we use it to judge, control, or disempower (because it did at one point, empower) each other. Be it women vs men, kesh vs non, brown vs gora, etc. The more we use it as a tool for oppression, the more people will turn away from it. If there is hope, it starts with trying to understand each other through sharing our experiences like this.

  2. anon says:

    Most of us grew up with enough privilege to have parents that paid enough attention to us to recognize something different in attitude, in our bodies, and our hearts.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why do Sikh men wear turbans and Sikh women (generally) do not?

  4. Blighty Singh says:

    ^ I think there's a growing realisation among young Sikh women, especially around here in London, that they are also supposed to wear a turban. There is, however, a distinct difference between the various different 'groups' (formerly castes) of Sikhs. For instance, around these parts, among the urban khatri Sikhs and ramgharia Sikhs, there is a pride that 90% of their men don't cut their hair and have turbans. However, 99% of their wives have shortish cut hair. This is because these groups, unlike many jatt women, believe the khalsa identity of Sikhs is only for the men. It doesn't apply to women. Really the whole thing is becoming a farce. I've even seen so many amritdhari jatt women with turbans but with their eyeline and face clearly waxed or had electronic hair removal done…..not to mention alot of make-up. Thats because their 'jatha' approves of such things. Quite clearly, around here, the wearing of turbans among women has become a fashion fad more than serious spirituality. These girls see every one of their muslim south asian friends and colleagues wearing the hijab and its almost become the normal thing to do with the non-covered female standing out like a freak. But with the pakistani girls, although the hair is covered, they have a religious and cultural duty to 'beautify' themselves with some serious fashion and styles. The Sikh girls see that and think it must be the same with sikhi…i.e as long as they don't cut the hair on their head and wear a turban anything else goes. Its not like that though. Its serious difficult to be a real sikh woman. If I was a women…….which I most definately ain't……I don't think I could live up to the ideal. For a man, the facial hair can be a positive in society…..but it takes real guts and pain for a woman to sport the same.

  5. Gurdeb Kaur says:

    I am a little confused. Waheguru pls help

  6. Rajinder Sharma says:

    [Edited by Admin. Maybe you should read our comment policy]

  7. yadig says:

    @Rajinder Sharma So maybe women should wear plumes and feathers that might help, Rajinder is on to something here. You are extremely intelligent.

  8. […] the tone of the L.A. times piece. In Birpal Kaur’s rebuttal post on The Langar Hall, “Separate But Equal,” she explores this cultural double standard; Sikh males aren’t warned that Sikh women […]

  9. […] Today!…ate-but-equal/ Guest blogged by Birpal Kaur Over this past weekend there was an article published in the Los […]

  10. Anonymous says:

    @Birpal Kaur Wow, I find it extremely offensive that you posted your personal insecurities regarding Sikhism on a major newspaper.

  11. yadig says:

    Anonymous it was not insecurities with Sikhi if you chose to actually pay attention to the article. It was the insecurities with dealing with the world and the relationship you have with your guru. Also I do not think Birpal Kaur is the only girl who faces this issue, so talking about it on a such a public level takes some guts. Any Sikh male or female has issues with trying to keep their head above water in this world and trying to connect with the divine (so not just hair). And honestly if you do not you probably are perfect and pagh salute to you bro/sis. The path of a Sikh is not an easy path and we may mess up, this woman had the courage to tell people about how she messed up and to talk about on a major news paper. So honestly please do not sit here with your self righteousness and tell her how you are offended. I'm offended that you're offended.

  12. Raj Singh says:

    Replying to Blighty Singh,
    I also even saw urban sikh girls doing every type of fashion even cutting hair but male members in their family wear turban and keep beard and tie it always. But what is the use of saying that urban Khatri sikhs are real sikhs and Jatt sikhs are not real sikhs only beacuse they are clean shaven.You cannot claim to be real sikhs only if your male members tie turban and maintain beard.

    I am not offending the girls, but the point is what sort of sikhism these parents are preaching when they don''t allow their boys to pluck a single hair from beard. Only thing is if one of your children is doing every type of fashion then why forcing the other not to do it. Was the teachings of gurus not applied to girls and only to boys.
    Further…. want to know if any Sikh boy has asked his parents about this discrimination and what weird explanation they would give to him.

    Awaiting answers from these families……