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The Sikh turban: at once personal and extremely public
Harmeet Singh Soin (Left) and his brother Harkirat Singh Soin (Right) differ on wearing the Sikh turban.
August 8th, 2012
04:48 PM ET

The Sikh turban: at once personal and extremely public

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Harkirat Singh Soin remembers a day in 1999 when, after much contemplation, he finally took a seat in a barber's chair.

All his 18 years, he'd worn long hair, first in a top knot, then in a dastar, or turban. It was an expression of his Sikh faith and a distinct mark of his identity.

As his locks tumbled to the floor, Soin felt ashamed.

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He thought of his upbringing in a suburban Milwaukee neighborhood by Punjabi parents who emigrated from India. He grew up on meals of homemade roti and daal makhani and sessions at Sunday school that instilled Sikh values. He thought also of how his mother had taken time to maintain her boys' long hair with love and care.

With every snip of the shears, he felt, he lost not just hair but parts of his being.

But he was tired of not fitting in, of being teased. Once when he was in elementary school, he was even beaten with sticks by neighborhood troublemakers, he says.

"I am guessing that they turned on me because I was different," says Soin, now 32 and studying for his U.S. medical license in Illinois after finishing medical school in China.

He became the first member of his family to shed the most visible signs of his faith. His father and older brother still wear a turban and beard.

He is like thousands of other Sikh men who have abandoned turbans to avoid discrimination or from fear of incidents like the shootings this week at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. Others simply feel they are old hat and interfere with modern lifestyles.

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The turban, tied in distinctive fashion, was a way to manage long hair and serves as the most instant way to recognize recognition of a Sikh.

Sikh men have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living guru bestowed a unique Sikh identity based on five articles of faith. Among them were a steel bracelet signifying a reality with no beginning or end; a sword representing resolve and justice; and unshorn hair as a gift of God and a declaration of humility.

In India, Sikhism's birthplace, the turban was first abandoned in large numbers in anti-Sikh riots that erupted after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, says Manjit Singh, a leader of a Sikh nationalist political party in New Delhi.

Explainer: Who are Sikhs and what do they believe?

Even more Sikhs unraveled their turbans for good after the September 11 attacks in the United States. They felt vulnerable after some Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims and targeted by revenge-seeking zealots.

Just four days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot five times and killed by aircraft mechanic Frank Roque. Roque was later found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to life in prison.

In the years following, the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group, reported more than 700 attacks or bias-related incidents against Sikhs.

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That was certainly cause for concern in the Soin family.

They displayed an American flag and bumper stickers on the family car that said: "Proud to be American" and "Sikh American."

"It was to show people that we are with you," Harkirat Soin says. "We are not who you think we are."

"We are not radical Muslims."

Soin's younger brother Manmeet stopped wearing a turban six years ago. Older brother Harmeet still wears his and has not been spared the sting of ignorance.

Harmeet Soin says he has been called "Osama" on the streets. And when he travels for his banking job, he gets called out at airport security every time, he says, even though he is a frequent flyer and has executive status with various airlines.

10 years after Sikh murder over 9/11, community continues to blend in and stand out

He says he, too, wanted to cut his hair when he was in school. But his father sat him down and asked: Is that the answer to your problem? Will you no longer be different then?

He realized then that the turban was as much his identity as his skin color.

"I am very proud of looking different," he says. "I am proud of my identity."

Harmeet Soin says he was disappointed when his brother first cut his hair and took off the turban. But he understands that Harkarit is an adult who has to be comfortable with the choices he makes.

The turban is a decided mark of difference for which Sikhs may have paid a heavy price last Sunday when gunman Wade Michael Page began shooting his way through a gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, in Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee.

Police have yet to define a motive, but in the Sikh community, the fear is that they were targeted by someone who knew little about their beliefs.

Lehigh University English professor Amardeep Singh wrote on his blog this week that the turban amplifies the hostility felt by some.

"The turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally," Singh wrote. "I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition.

"I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral - perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract - a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right one" was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter."

Harkarit Soin says his family knew one of the victims well. Satwant Singh Kaleka, who served as president of the gurdwara, had presided over prayers and rituals at Soin's sister's wedding.

"Why are we being targeted?" Soin says. "Despite educating people, it seems nothing has changed since 9/11."

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As the community stands in solidarity after tragedy, Harkarit Soin says he is considering wrapping a turban again.

"I think this was my vanity," he says about cutting his hair. "I wanted to conform. But why should I be ashamed of whom I am? We are a hardworking community. And we have been through a lot."

Soin is proud to be an American, he says. Proud to be Sikh - and of an identity marked by a turban.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Race • Sikh

soundoff (814 Responses)
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    April 9, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
  2. Kaushal Sharma

    Beautiful story from India about Sikhism and its present state of elevated spiritualism.This should bring the reality of the peace loving Sikhs to forefront.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45kEv4-ejuk&w=640&h=390]

    November 15, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  3. BootstrapsFisher

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    August 15, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  4. gliese 42

    My grandfather was a Sikhs too and he decided that it was time to have a haircut when we arrived in America. Sikhism has been infiltrated with the caste system and its founder Nanak never ask Sikhs to wear turban or carry a dagger. Follow the preaching of Nanak only and that is called true Sikhism. I am a Christian but I always feel that Nanak teachings will guide the Sikhs.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Simran

      Yes dear, Baba Nanak never told us to wear a turban. It became a symbol of the Khalsa panth, when Guru Gobind Singh commanded the Khalsa.
      Still, a lot of Sikhs wear it with dedication and respect and inner reverance for the Guru. No one is judging any one if they dont want to wear it (at least not in my family), but then no one should be forced to stop wearing one coz others want them to. I still have brothers who continue to wear turbans abroad, with pride bcoz they identify with it.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • gliese 42

      The Khalsa panth does not reflects Nanak. It was created due to the oppression created by the Muslims. Stick to teachings of Nanak and get rid of the caste system which has infiltrated Sikhism today. Remember this is America and not Amritsar

      August 15, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • Simran

      Yes, but Sikhism is comprised of the teachings of ALL our ten Gurus. Baba Nanak actually never started the religion. He was the founder yes, but he never wrote the Adi Granth.

      And America or Amritsar, no one should have to change from who they want to be as long as they are good people. One should be allowed to be what he/she believes he is. The only restrictions should be towards causing harm to others (and how does that apply by wearing turbans in America?)

      Castism entered Sikh culture much later. It is not present in our religious text, neither did any of our Gurus advocate it. They were completely against castism.
      The keeping of hair cannot be put in the same perspective as caste system. Please dont mix the 2 issues.
      Traditionally, Sikhs do not cut their hair and male Sikhs do not cut their beards. This ‘natural state’ symbolises devotion to God. Guru Gobind Singh encouraged Sikhs not to cut their hair, which should be allowed to grow ‘as God intended’.
      And yes, there is no compulsion. If you visit India, you will be surprised to find how many Indian Sikhs do not keep turbans.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Simran

      Gliese,
      Going by the as.sumption that when u r in America, u r supposed to do what the Americans do.
      Now let us just as.sume that by next year, America gets taken over by Muslims (I know it would seem silly, but then the White Americans are also not the native population. Ever heard of Re.d Indians? Now in America, u do not follow the dress of R.ed Indians, do u?)
      Going back to the Muslim scen.ario, if that happens, are u going to be okay with wearing a bu.rka bcoz that is what the Americans do? Well, then u might just want to run back to Amritsar.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  5. lachman

    All religions should be respected equally worldwide by all human beings because God created all the human beings equally, the customs and traditions of all the different religions should also be respected by all the human beings, the heads or representatives of all the religions should teach tolerance to their communities towards other religions.

    August 14, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  6. iluv_USA

    Message to Sikhs. USA is a great country & we Sikhs love this country. Sikhs need to play their role in removing Ignorance prevailing amongst racist or militant groups by reaching out to militant groups, connecting with them & informing them – that i) We are NOT Muslims. We were born out of Hinduism as a part of anti-fanatic-Muslim movement in India 5 centuries ago. This is a fact & by revealing a fact you are NOT giving a message that it is OK to kill Muslims ii) Killing any human is wrong – whether Muslim or Sikh or any other.

    Daily prayer of Sikhs calls for “good, well-being, benefit, welfare, benevolence for EVERYONE i.e. all humans, animals, birds, nature etc. We believe in community service. Many Sikhs wear turban & have beard. Sikh turban is NOT Taliban or Muslim turban. Sikhs served in World Wars I & II. Just like American people, Sikhs have suffered at the hands of fanatic Muslims; from 15th century till now. Hindus suffered at the hands of fanatic Muslims since the last 11 centuries. It is real tragic that we Sikhs are misunderstood & mistaken as Muslims. Sikhs have no enmity with mainstream peaceful Muslims or any other religion.

    August 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • John P. Sabella

      You look so much better w/o a turban. Your a handsome man with a full head of hair. I'm sure your wife would like to show you off. All christian women use to dress like nuns. That was the european style for women in the middle ages. That style froze in time and became known as the "Habbit" for the rest of us time marches on. Harmeet, God is much more interested in your good works and who you helped today and if you treated everyone you met as you would like to be treated. Does not a Sikh wear an orniment that identifies he or she as Sihk? Like christians wear crosses? It must be very hot under there but you can ware whatever you please except your birthday cloths. JPS

      August 14, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • BLOGmeBLOGyou

      RELIGILARIOUS
      RELIGICULOUS

      August 15, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • sathanuman108

      Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh! thank you for your comments. Chardi Kala

      September 25, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  7. Monztah

    Whites will be the minorities within 30 years.

    The world is mixing and everyone will be brown.

    God is described in Revelation 1:13-16 how he has "skin of bronze and hair of sheep's wool".-- doesn't seems to be "white" at all.....

    August 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • iluv_USA

      Montztah – I agree with you. It is about time people realize that some immigration took place in the 1700s, some immigration took place in the 1800s, some immigration took place in the 1900s and some immigration is taking place now. If someone starts harping about 'ownership" – then the real owners of this land are the Native Americans. Other than those – all are immigrants.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • J Singh

      Hey Montzah – This is really good news. Thanks for sharing. Very Cool! :) The future has less hatred based on skin color...but primarily on character!! I think that's what you really want to say.

      You didn't mention colonization, imperialism, and the multiple World Wars resulting in over 200,000,000 deaths or more...based on what you hold so ridiculously dear to your heart.

      Get a grip and start contributing positively to society. Learn, help and teach good things to children.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • J Singh

      Hey Monztah. I realize your comment was actually positive. Sorry for my sarcasm. Thanks for your insight brother.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Mister Jones

    If you don't want to be looked at like a freak (because you do), then go to a place where everyone dresses like that. Like your country of origin. You obviously left it for a reason, because you are here now. This isn't the Atlantic slave trade, you CHOSE to come here. For whatever reason. And we do not dress like that. Dress accordingly for the party, or go home. ... Also, be aware that our enemies dress in a similar fashion, and that isn't helping your position.

    August 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • SImran

      Why dont you dress like the native Americans Mister Jones? They were the ones to who this land actually belonged. Look what you did to the original owners. Another Wade Page in the making, aren't you?

      August 14, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • ericbrett

      Are you serious? You clearly have no idea of what it means to be an American. BTW, I'am an American through and through. I have no problem with people being different, that is what makes this an outstanding country with infinite possibilities. It's people like you that continue to hold this country back from true greatness. What a disgrace!!!!!!!!

      August 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Monztah

      If I am Indian American why don't americans call themselves European Americans? we are all migrants to this country

      August 14, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • iluv_USA

      Mister Jones – This is America and you have every right to write your views. We Sikhs welcome your views because as we preach for diversity, we respect diversity of views too. But let me make clear that the way Sikhs dress does NOT give you or any other nut – the right to kill. How would you feel if someone traces you and wipes out your family? Human being has no right to take another's life.

      You are a Coward hiding behind the computer. You have no clue about Sikhs. The last – last – people America would like have as enemies are the Sikhs. Your country is already embroiled with Muslims all over the Globe. If you start attacking the non-whites and that too in America – this country is doomed, I can predict.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • J Singh

      Hey Mister Jones.

      We have more experience with that 'enemy' than you will ever know. You are uneducated and your comments are pathetic. Sikhism is older than the USA. Sikhism fought the Mughals before the USA even existed.

      Also, very few Muslims wear turbans. They dress more like you do!!!!

      YOU NEED TO LEARN FROM US.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • J Singh

      Mister Jones,

      You didn't mention colonization, imperialism, and the multiple World Wars resulting in over 200,000,000 deaths or more...based on what you hold so ridiculously dear to your heart.

      Get a grip and start contributing positively to society. Learn, help and teach good things to children.

      Don't blame YOUR OWN FAILURES on others....you haven't earned that right!. Accomplish something positive in life...then talk.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • J Singh

      MISTER JONES...LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE AT THE WRONG PARTY !! EH????

      August 27, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • sathanuman108

      Very foolish comments Mr. Jones. The problem is your fear, your prejudice, your hatred of others. Sikhs (with or without turbans) make up of 2% of India's population of 1 billion. Most Indians are Hindus. Most Indians don't wear turbans. Only Rishis (Sages/Yogis) have unshorn hair and beards. The Khalsa (very committed Sikhs who don't cut their hair or beards, live a life of a householder and serve their community wherever they reside. Only in America do Sikhs face the fear and racism your purport in this discussion. England has come to love and respect t their Sikh population. The same for Canada, New Zealand, Australia. You equate conforming to the norm of "white" America and converting to a warped view of Christianity is the way to solve all problems. I am sorry but you are wrong on this issue. I have lived the Khalsa path since 1971. I was born in America. I can trace my lineage back 400 years. I am white. I am married, a grandfather and I have worked for the US Federal government in security to protect this country with a turban, a beard, unshorn hair and beard. I was respected and I did my job well. I served before I adopted Sikhi in the US Air Force (1968-70). God bless you and may you grow and mature into a human being

      September 25, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  9. CommonSense

    "Why are we being targeted?" Soin says. "Despite educating people, it seems nothing has changed since 9/11."

    The problem with this is that some people just don't or refuse to accept that education. Even if reason and logic stare them right in the face and wave a bright flag and it screams hello open your eyes and let knowledge in please, they still prefer to be ignorant. They cling to the 'ignorance is bliss' ideology and they are happy in their own little world maintaining their status quo. Meanwhile, the rest of civilized and progressive modern society has to put up with their nonsense and continue to strive to educate them despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. While I would prefer that today's religions fade away as the religions before them did, I'll settle for the followers of them to be at least civil and peaceful to everyone else.

    August 14, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  10. james

    If you live here in the US, ditch the turbin.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • CommonSense

      If you want to be treated like an adult, go to school and learn something.

      August 14, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • ericbrett

      Let me guess...small town U.S.A., right? loose the ignorance, it doesn't do any of us any good.

      August 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • J Singh

      James, You're in the USA...

      You also need to start wearing Native Indian Headdress (with the features), since they were here before you....can't have it both ways you HYPOCRITE.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  11. Cogitoergosum

    It is your actions and behaviors that are the best representation of your religious beliefs. Dressing in one way or another is only an attachment to some physical symbol, in itself a delusion. That is my belief. I don't have to wear it on my sleeve.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • CathEngineer-2

      I agree.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Marian

      Right on point. I couldn't have said it better

      August 14, 2012 at 3:00 am |
  12. ralphie

    Imagine if all of us folks whose ancestors came from Europe still dressed like our forefathers did 500 years ago. We'd all look like Disney World's "It's A Small World". That would be pretty neat!

    August 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  13. fritz

    In the past when I was younger, the best way I found to live among the Christian folks is to blend in. Be like them in most ways. Dress like them, talk like them and stay invisible. If they ask, and many do, "Are you a good Christian?" A sure fire reply that works everytime is to say, "Absolutely! I'm a Christian! And I'm good too! I believe in my lord and saviour jesus christ! And I'm saved too! How 'bout you?" They suck it up like candy. You can even reinforce that statement by waving a bible over your head. But you can get by without it. You say stuff like that and you can't go wrong. You may choke on it but at least you'll survive among these people. But now that I'm old with only a few years left, I have no more patience with these people and don't give a dam anymore. When the JWs come to visit or any Christian asks me the question, I usually reply, "I am NOT a Christian! I am a Humanist! How dare you attempt to destroy the beliefs I cherish and hold dear by trying to replace them with your own you proselytizing idiot! Begone from me, fool, before I get really angry!"

    August 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Claire

      Humanists and nontheists are the only ones still feeling the need to hide in the closet on a large scale. Some get around it by saying they are "agnostic," so fundamentalists of all religions can feel comfortable in their own beliefs.I think visual symbols of religion, even large Christian crosses, are a distraction. Too bad they feel "proud" to wear their religion on their sleeve so ignorant people can target them. But it says a lot about the power of cultural indoctrination. It runs very deep and when people try to transcend it they feel "shame."

      August 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Yeah, George Carlin slowly but inexorably went from being a humorous young unbeliever to a mean old not-so-funny unbeliever as well.....

      August 13, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  14. 111Dave111

    Mormon God is a Space Alien, LOL
    Mormons Baptize Dead People, L&LOL
    Mormon Religion, Big Money, Big Bigotry. L&L&LOL
    Mormon man in white underwear, a reference to special Mormon garments. L&L&L&LOL

    August 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  15. DDM

    Look at the women. If any are showing their hair, then they are probably NOT muslims.

    August 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • TheTruth

      What are you saying?? Alot of muslims women don't cover their hair. Go and educate yourself before you make a dumb comments and make a fool out of yourself.

      August 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Claire

      We have Muslims living nearby, and some are ultra-conservative, with women covered head-to-toe in burkas, and other women only wear a hijab or nothing at all on their hair–all in the same family. And some men have long beards and others are clean-shaven, again, in the same family. The big difference is, in the US, many of them have a choice (they all do legally, of course). The biggest problem with Islam is it's a type of government as well as a religion, so laws to make it illegal to say anything against it would be like saying one can't say anything against communism or monarchy. Of course, Christianity was like that at one point in time, too.

      August 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.