Sikhs exemplify their devotion to their faith wearing the  turban, a tradition deeply embedded in their religious and cultural identity. For Sikhs, the turban represents a commitment to their beliefs, embodying principles of equality, service, and dignity. Wearing a turban is not merely a fashion statement but a visible expression of their faith, serving as a reminder to adhere to the teachings of Sikhism in their daily lives. Let’s look into Dr Simran Jeet Singh’s perspective as a Sikh adorning a turban while living in the U.S. 

Many Sikh Americans growing up in the U.S. often ask their families a particular question, and as two Sikh Americans who uphold our faith, Simranjeet was no exception. In 2012, as Americans gathered in vigils for the six murdered Sikhs in a recent act of hate, many asked the same question. 

Grandparents who had seen the community go through upheavals over the years told, "Our ancestors were beheaded so that we could practice our faith without fear" further  narrating stories of torture and heroism, martyrdom and sacrifice in the 500 years of Sikh history. These stories gave us a legacy that infuses the turban with deep meaning: it embodies our community's commitment to devotion, honor, and service to all, a gift made possible by those who died to protect the practice of our faith.

Sikhs wearing the crowning glory 

While some from various backgrounds may don turbans for cultural reasons, it's important to recognize that for Sikhs, the turban holds deep religious significance. In the United States, nearly every person seen wearing a turban is Sikh. The turban is not merely an accessory but a symbol of faith and identity for Sikhs, and removing it would feel like a betrayal of their core beliefs, which include the defense of everyone's right to religious freedom. 

Despite the potential risks, especially highlighted by tragic events such as the shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikhs hold steadfast to their tradition. As Sikhs, we gain strength from stories handed down through generations, explaining the significance of wearing the turban as a visible sign of their faith and resilience.

Carrying the legacy of Guru Nanak Ji

In the 15th century Punjab, amid intense religious tensions, Guru Nanak emerged, offering a message of unity. He proclaimed, "Na ko Hindu, Na ko Muslim" - rejecting labels to emphasize the oneness of humanity. Traveling across South and Central Asia, he challenged social injustices like caste systems, gender biases, and religious intolerance. Guru Nanak advocated devotion to the One Divine, equality, and serving others, teaching that everyone could connect with the Divine. His followers, known as Sikhs, embraced his teachings, symbolized by wearing turbans as a mark of dedication.

Guru Nanak's successors continued his legacy, leading many to embrace Sikhism. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, Sikhs stood alongside people of various faiths, combating political tyranny. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh leader, was martyred for defending religious freedoms. This period marked Sikhs' commitment to justice and their resilience in the face of oppression.

The Guru was beheaded before a big crowd," our grandparents would tell us. "When one brave man brought the Guru's head to his young son, his son asked, 'Were there any Sikhs in the crowd to stand up to this injustice?' The man said he didn't know. The young boy responded, 'From now on, Sikhs will never hide.'" 

The son, who later became the tenth Sikh leader, Guru Gobind Singh, played a pivotal role in shaping the Sikh identity. In the year 1699, he gathered all Sikhs and established a common identity by introducing five articles of faith, such as kesh (uncut hair), applicable to both women and men. Traditionally, men tied their long hair in turbans, while some women also embraced turbans, though many chose headscarves during prayers.

Guru Gobind Singh urged Sikhs to discard their individual surnames, indicative of social status. Instead, he encouraged a collective identity, assigning the last name "Kaur" to all women and "Singh" to all men. Furthermore, he declared the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures, as the eternal guide for Sikhs. The community gathers in gurdwaras, known as "Doorways to the Divine," to engage in communal worship, study, and sing devotional prayers from the scripture.

Sikh community overcoming oppression 

In the 18th century, Sikhs faced capture, torture, and death rather than renounce their turbans or faith. They embraced the ideal of the warrior-saint, living devotedly to God and fiercely opposing injustice. When India fell to British rule, Sikhs united with Hindus and Muslims to fight for independence. Despite this history, Sikhs in India still struggle for their rights, and many sought refuge in the U.S. during the 1980s due to religious persecution.

In present times, Sikhs constitute the fifth-largest organized religion globally, with over half a million in the U.S. Nevertheless, Sikhs in America confront racism and religious discrimination. Early Sikh settlers, including some grandparents, waited years to gain citizenship and property rights. In their childhoods, they endured racial insults and vandalism during events like the Iran hostage crisis, the first Gulf war, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Since 9/11, Sikhs have endured bullying, profiling at airports, exclusion from military service, and targeted hate crimes, exemplified by a recent brutal massacre.

In Oak Creek and across the United States, Sikhs have demonstrated their resilience and strength in the face of adversity. This was evident when Sikhs were allowed to return to their gurdwara after the tragic incident. They walked into a distressing scene with blood-stained carpets and bullet-riddled walls. However, the community wasted no time in taking action: they replaced carpets, scrubbed floors, patched bullet holes, and fixed broken windows. It was a remarkable sight to witness as the community came together to rebuild itself.

The Sikh community in Oak Creek mirrors the diversity found within the broader Sikh community in America. Some members choose to wear few articles of faith, while others wear turbans. Despite these differences, all Sikhs, regardless of their practices, share the spirit of "Chardi Kala" - an unwavering optimism even during difficult times. They unite in the aftermath of tragedy, striving to bring about positivity and growth.

Way Forward 

Hate crimes targeting individuals wearing turbans, veils, yarmulkes, or robes represent assaults on communities perceived as "other" in American society. At a time of economic hardship, widespread gun availability, and politicians exploiting fear for electoral gain, it is crucial to reaffirm the importance of fostering safe and supportive environments for Sikhs and all citizens.

Sharing their story aims to inspire others when seeing a turban. It encourages reflection on the rich history and resilience woven into its fabric, perhaps prompting a gesture of acknowledgment and understanding.

*Based on an article by Dr Simran Jeet Singh, published in Huffington Post  on 13th August 2012


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