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Born and brought up in Punjab, Mandeep Kaur made the Punjabis, the Sikh community in particular, proud after she created history by becoming the first person of the Sikh faith to serve as a pastor with a uniformed rank in the British military.

Flight Lieutenant Mandeep Kaur was one of five padres who completed reservist officer training at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Kaur was selected as a chaplain while studying for her doctorate in engineering in the UK. 

The Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the air and space force of the United Kingdom. In 1918, it was formed by reuniting the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) towards the end of the First World War, making it the first independent air force in the world. RAF has played a significant role in British military history since its formation. The RAF's mission is to support the objectives of the British Ministry of Defence (MOD).

Mandeep Kaur grew up in the Punjab region of India and served as a Chaplain while studying in the UK for her doctorate in engineering. As a student, she was selected as the first Sikh chaplain and has served in this role since 2005. 

Ms. Kaur's accomplishments include numerous "Firsts."

She is the first person of the Sikh faith to be appointed as a chaplain in the British military forces. She is also the first woman of non-Christian faith to hold that position. She is also the first non-Christian to be commissioned as a chaplain with a uniformed rank, having graduated in December 2018.

“The path to my becoming the first Sikh Chaplain in the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom has been neither a planned nor a predictable one. I feel that I have been brought to this point only through God’s Grace,” Mandeep Kaur told a leading website.

Role of Padre in the RAF

The Padres support the spiritual and welfare needs of all soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and their families. On long deployments, they deploy on operations and aboard ships. They can also go out on patrols and live on the front lines, ready to assist when needed. 

Ms. Kaur’s appointment forms part of the Ministry's new diversity strategy to increase diversity and inclusion across the armed forces. The strategy titled 'A Force for Inclusion' is aimed at ensuring that diversity and inclusion are a major part of all of the department's work, including workforce policies, culture, and behavior.

In a comprehensive and exclusive interview, Ms. Kaur discussed her work description, her ethnic and religious profiling, and how she used this challenge to spread awareness about Sikhism.

She said, “I was often mistaken for being a Muslim woman because I used to don a dupatta (South Asian scarf) over my head like many of our Muslim sisters do. The problem with growing religious hate crime is the lack of awareness about Sikhs and their way of life.” 

Ms. Kaur said, “I wanted people to know who the Sikhs are and how we are different from Muslims, whom some of us may resemble. So I lapped up the opportunity to take up the role of a chaplain in the Royal Air Force.” She was born and educated in Punjab until she moved to England to pursue a Ph. D. 

Ms. Kaur, a resident of Birmingham, claims that after she became an Amritdhari  Sikh(baptized), the mistaken perception, that she was a Muslim dissipated. The 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh established the principles of Khalsa, and Amritdhari Sikhs are formally inducted into this ideology.

 Since she has been initiated into the Khalsa order, Ms. Kaur wears a dastar (Khalsa-style turban), which is fairly uncommon amongst Sikhs women, especially those residing outside Punjab. Additionally, Ms. Kaur also carries a kirpan (Amritdhari Sikhs carry a dagger which is symbolic of their faith) while wearing a uniform. Breaking barriers she has set a mark by being the first and only Sikh Chaplain for the British Armed Forces. 

She gave an interesting turn to the interview by saying, “We have worked hard to enable policies in the British military where all kakaars (five articles of Sikh faith) are allowed while serving.” 

The first Sikh Chaplain for the RAF adds, “My life changed after I became an Amritdhari Sikh. I no longer had a dupatta on my head, therefore all those questions about me being Muslim suddenly retracted. Life also became interesting because now, people would ask me who I am and what was the purpose of my dastar, instead of just guessing my religion. Women tell me how lucky I am because I don’t have to bother about my hairstyle, something on which most women spend considerable time, effort, and money. People in general tell me that my dastar has an aura and gives me a very powerful look. This only makes my pride about being an Amritdhari surge and grants me an opportunity to educate people about our faith.” 

She calls herself "dastar wali bibi" and is proud to be the first Amritdhari woman to take part in a military parade of the British military.

Ms. Kaur sheds light on the masculinity of her new job role She said, “You know, my designation is known as a ‘padre’, which refers to a male Christian pastor. Now, if I were to look back and assess what a long way we’ve come by having a Sikh woman be a padre, I can’t lose sight of the long road ahead that remains because the designation needs to be made gender neutral because we are breaking new ground. It will take time but we’ll get there with God’s grace.”  

She added that recently, Sikhs serving in the British military have suggested a Sikh chaplain be designated as a Granthi, a person who preaches from Guru Granth Sahib, the supreme religious text of the faith. 

When she was asked, how does it feel to be known as Flt Lt. Mandeep Kaur MBE now?

Ms. Kaur, in all humility, says that her position is just a facet of her existence, and it does not change who she is. Life for her is as busy and service-oriented as it can get. “You can say it for the sake of saying it but both are independent of each other. My work is to uplift our soldiers when they need motivation and I employ Guru Granth Sahib’s teachings to give them what they need. And that’s my job,” adds Ms. Kaur.

Mandeep Kaur aka ‘Dastar Wali Bibi’ believes in enacting radical change and her work reflects Sikh values of equality, strength, social justice, and empathy.

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