Turban Day: combating misinformation through conversations about Sikh and Punjabi culture

Seva UW’s annual event celebrates diversity and promotes cross-cultural understanding through educational, interactive e...

Seva UW, a student organization founded in 2016 on the Sikh principle of selfless service, hosted its annual Turban Day in Red Square on Friday, May 31. The event, attended by people of all ages and backgrounds, sought to combat misconceptions about the Sikh faith and Sikh cultural practices, namely wearing turbans.

Sikhism dates back to the 16th century when Guru Nanak founded the monotheistic religion in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan.

Later, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the practice of wearing turbans, or dastars, to protect one’s hair and mark Sikhs as people readily willing to offer assistance to people in need. Turbans also serve as a symbol of equality in that Sikhs of all socioeconomic statuses, races, genders, and castes wear them.

According to the BBC, the 20 million Sikhs around the world, about 500,000 of whom live in the United States, follow fundamental Sikh principles such as generously serving those in need and making an honest living.

Despite the theme of being a force for good underlying these main principles, lack of understanding among the public yields significant consequences. In a post-9/11 world, discrimination toward South Asians, especially those who wear turbans, persists.

Poor cultural understanding also leads to subtler forms of oppression such as cultural appropriation. In winter of 2018, for example, Gucci designed the “Indy Full Turban,” a $790 turban resembling those worn by Sikhs.

Given these issues, Seva UW’s members eagerly seized the opportunity to educate the UW community about Sikhism through turban tying, a museum-inspired gallery, and langar, a free, community-prepared vegetarian meal. Event attendees also enjoyed live performances of kirtan music and gatka, a Sikh martial art...

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...New to this year’s Turban Day was the gallery of informational posters and objects relating to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Topics covered in the posters included the relationship of women to Sikhism, Sikhism’s global mission, and Punjabi attire.

Volunteers also stood on-site prepared to explain the background and purpose of the artifacts, all of which were donated by members of the Sikh community and local Sikh institutions.

One such artifact was the kirpan, a type of small sword used in gatka.

“[The kirpan] speaks to the fact that Sikhs believe in speaking up when they see injustices … [and it’s] a symbol not to be passive,” Manjeet Kaur, Seva UW’s secretary, said.

Manjeet Kaur hoped that the visual displays and accompanying volunteer explanations would “destigmatize and normalize” components of Sikh and Punjabi culture.

However, Manjeet Kaur also recognized that Turban Day was just the first step to deconstructing stereotypes.

“The work doesn’t stop here,” Manjeet Kaur said. “Just because you have fun at Turban Day and you get a turban tied doesn’t mean [the] problem is solved.”

Seva UW’s leadership hopes to further the mission of Turban Day by discussing traditionally taboo subjects like mental health at their open general meetings and by allying with other misrepresented communities to foster understanding.

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