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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.

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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.

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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)
  1. wert

    I dont blame cnn i too like to show interest in stuff when its popular.

    August 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  2. A_Sikh

    I have been on both sides of the issue so I know what I am talking about. I used the wear turban/patka until I was nineteen and I am thirty seven now. I think turban was appropriate in olden times but it has outlived its usefulness not because of this horrible tragedy perpetrated by this Nazi wacko rather because of other common sense reasons.
    It is very impractical, it easily takes 15-30 minutes in the morning to wear it if done right. It is risky to drive a cycle/motorcycle with a turban rather than a helmet. Turban provides no protection for Indian sikh soldiers in a battle, in fact many sikh soldiers died with head wounds which were easily preventable by wearing helmets. Patka/turban is often worn very tight to keep it in its place, this causes constant discomfort during the day. It is tough to play sports as well, you can forget about head butting in soccer! I can go on and on...
    I am no less a sikh than who wears a turban. It is time Sikhism is defined by good principles by which one should live one\'s life rather a piece of cloth on hair. If any sikh person thinks I am wrong, please let me know...

    August 9, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • paul

      Less of a Sikh,

      Face it. You cut your hair because you thought you would get more girls. Because you couldn't handle the heat of being noticed as soon as you walked into a room, and because you had low self esteem.

      stop making excuses.

      There is no excuse. You just were not man enough to be called Singh.

      You think that in the times of the Guru's that sikhs didn't play sports. LOL they faught battles and faught wars and the Turban protected them just fine.

      If you wanted you could take off your pag and wear a helmet when you ride a bike or motorcycle. What need was there to cut your hair.

      You are a manmukh who couldn't get laid that is all.

      Please address you self as hindhu/muslim and not sikh.

      thx

      August 9, 2012 at 3:54 am |
    • rhondajo3

      I am not Sikh, but you have a good head on your shoulders. I understand why your ancestors wore it, and I understand why, in this day and age you would not want to wear it. I believe that the Sikhs are some of the best people on the planet. NOT because they wear a turban, and not because they focus on the length of the hair. Those are outward things. The important things are what is in your heart. I know that you can reveal your truth and morals to the world without a turban. I am quite taken aback by the Sikhs, having just recently read about you. Please know that you can change the world with your message without a turban!

      August 9, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • A_Sikh

      @ Paul
      I respect your belief for wearing a turban but if you think that makes you better than others who don't, you are being unreasonable. There is no need to be angry! It is the anger and ignorance that caused this tragedy.

      August 9, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • JR

      Paul, sorry to hear you rant about someone who decided to live a different life than how you live yours. This is how groups try to keep their members in line, to be obligated to the group or clan. If the group has something to really offer, they need not worry about dress codes, or other group "likeness" requirements. Otherwise, the group becomes more violent trying to control their members and those who might leave. Does (wearing your clan's clothing) making yourself stand out in a crowd make you a wiser, kinder, and more peaceful person? If not, what are you proving?

      August 9, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Simran

      Paul, you are no better in your thoughts than Wade to suggest that A-Sikh is less of a Sikh bcoz he chooses not to wear a turban. Please read your scripture again and learn to practice tolerance. You get what you give.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  3. RasPutin

    I worked in a facility with a lot of Sikhs, about 30% of a workforce of 400. About 80% of the Sikhs went without turbans and were clean-shaven. Their kids went to schools dressed mostly normally, acted and sounded like all the others, and mostly excelled in class. Mostly the older ones who grew up in India were the ones wearing turbans, and they appeared to exude wisdom and contentment.
    But the young ones who presented themselves with beards and turbans kept themselves apart, and seemed to keep themselves locked into the culture of the old country, with its customs, conflicts and hatreds.

    August 9, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  4. danielwalldammit

    Knew little, or cared little, I somehow doubt the bigots of this country much care to distinguish the various religions of 'those' people out there.

    August 9, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  5. babloo

    When the earlier immigrants came to this country, the native americans objected and they were exterminated with guns and germs inspite of the imbalance in numbers. Looks like aggression is the way and offence is the best defence. I hope the sikhs do stand up in defiance and arm themselves and if some one messes with them do not hesitate use guns .... There are nut jobs in this country who are beyond all reason and the availability of guns mean WHEN will someone get you not IF someone will get you in a mass shooting ..

    August 9, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • SHELDON

      There are nut jobs in every country. Unfortunately some people tend to let history so called "repeat" itself rather than learn that the behavior exhibited in the past was not the correct way.

      August 9, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • babloo

      Sheldon
      I agree 98% of americans are rational people and open minded, however there are people of radical fringe who do not hesitate to kill you just like that because of the availability of guns. Principles of gandhi worked because British were rational, however principles of gandhi would not have worked with Hitler. There is evil in the world and people need to protect themselves against evil even if it means arming themselves for self defence....

      August 9, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • SHELDON

      The majority of the gun owners in America are responsible gun owners. Maintaining that responsibility and ensuring the value of innocent life is what's important. Therefore, the owner of the gun must realize the risk he takes upon discharging that firearm at another human being because said owner will have to prove he discharged his weapon in self defense.

      August 9, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  6. babloo

    I like that the sikhs are preserving their ways inspite of adversity. I hope they wear their turban in defiance of nut jobs.
    I also hope they arm themselves legally with guns and protect themselves from nut jobs. Agression needs to be answered with agressions and force with force. Whenever a community demonstrates weakness unfortunately the powerful will stomp them to the ground. The sikhs need to arm themselves in this country and stop their defensive stand. If there is racism, drag the perpetrators to the court. If your kid gets bullied, get the parents of the perpetrators to justice and sue their ass so that they get bankrupt. They should also learn from the Jewish community which has demonstrated their cohesiveness so that they will never go through what has happened to them during world war..

    August 9, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • SHELDON

      @babloo "Agression needs to be answered with Agression and force with force."

      There are other means to help get a better understanding and resolution to the situation that occurred than using force, aggressiveness and guns.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  7. Shine222

    I have to say bias crimes now in the United States can be some poor innocent American just wanting to engage in a peaceful conversation that the recipient did not like. In America many Americans I am afraid are having their rights of free speech violated because the government wants to kiss the b*ts of the minorities. I have to say that this will build up resentment. It is a very, very bad policy that will only make thinks 1,000,000,000 X worse. It is bad for both sides, but the government will do what it wants.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  8. americian

    THERE IS A DAY NIGHT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIKHS AND TALIBAN. SIKHS R NOT MUSLIM.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • SHELDON

      @American I fully understand your post, however I have seen your same comment on these blogs for the past several days from alot of people. Unfortunately, there are posters on these blogs that just don't get it. Sad really. People are easy to judge and criticize each other. The hateful one refuse to listen or read the article and post their hate anyway.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Vincent

      No Matter What ... The Thing Is They Are Non-Whites And Showing Off Their Religion Values In Public ...!!!

      August 9, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  9. SHELDON

    Heartfelt thoughts and prayers to all the victims, families and friends who endured this horrible tragedy.

    With the shooter dead we will never know the reason for his actions. There is never a reasonable explanation for actions of insanity.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  10. Shine222

    He is very handsome w/out the head covering....looks so much better. Maybe the wacko spun a board on who to abuse...we will never know it sounds like. Maybe the head covering had nothing to do with the attack....no one knows. It is all speculation....

    August 9, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  11. CobiaKiller

    I would much rather see a person wearing a turban than somone with an Iranian flag.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  12. saywaaat

    in the land of the free and the home of the brave you can get killed for what you choose to wear.in a country that calls itself civilized ,those educated(sarcasm) civilized (sarcasm) citizens can kill you because you look like someone who might believe in something that someone else who believed in did something .very christian ( thou shall not kill ) of you ladies and gents.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      To be fair, Thou Shalt Not Kill only applied to other Jews.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Andrew

      Please do not judge an entire nation's people based on the actions of a lone gunman. I have encountered some racism in the US but it is simply not socially acceptable here, and certainly in no community I've come across would justify use of violence. Education has little to do with how people choose to value human lives, to me that's a moral issue. I've met a lot of kindhearted people with little to no formal education.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  13. Shine222

    Oh...when he describes that Indian food....nummy!!! They should have a fast food Indian restaurant..(McIndia) .naan bread w/ lamb, veggie marsala...etc.etc...it would sell...good stuff

    August 9, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      If you don't mind s.hitting for 24 hours straight.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:20 am |
  14. HIndu

    Go Sikhs ... the lions of India! Singh is King.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  15. Sandy Garrett

    Who ever at CNN that regulates the commentary needs to be fired...Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son...you are an idiot and a waste of time..Louis...you are a bigot..pepsee...I enjoy your posts and it is a pleasure to read a post from an intelligent person even if I don't agree with you on some points....Caihlyn....I enjoy your posts as well....Kaur...checked out the website and thank you it was very informative....theala...I completely agree

    August 9, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  16. maggotfist

    "the most instant way to recognize recognition of a Sikh."

    Did a ten year old write this article?

    August 9, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • maggotfist

      "But he was tired of not fitting in, of being teased."

      Starting a sentence with 'But"?

      August 9, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • Andrew

      It's a very well-written article with a typo. It happens.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Starting a sentence with a 'But' is perfectly acceptable.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  17. Alice in Wonderland

    "Police have yet to define a motive"....?? Really?

    August 9, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Shine222

      I think they concluded he was just another wacko...lost his girlfriend....had no one...no hope...very sad...why he picked on this group.....who knows...maybe one of them lived next too him had a party with other Sikhs and had the stereo up too loud...anyone making such a "never to return to things as they were" move is obviously right next to suicide.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  18. Jack

    Hello folks. Everyone is cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    August 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  19. Vaibhav

    Peaceful people, peaceful religion.... really???? How convenient. God bless sikhs short memory. how did bhindranwale was born and why did punjab burned for a decade?

    August 9, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • SinghSaab

      Saale bahmno...... tuhande picheyo bhindrawaale da danda kado nikalna........ aiwen raula naa paa,,,,ghar baith ke daal chaul khaa,,,,,,,,,,

      August 9, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • HIndu

      @Vaibhav - shut up you ignorant. Bhindrawale was product of dirty divisive politics played by Indira Gandhi (she first promoted him and then he got out of her control) and not a product of Sikh religion. And she paid the price for that with her life. The riots against Sikhs was handiwork of Cong workers supposedly taking revenge for assassination of their leader. It was NOT Hindus Vs Sikhs. It was dirty Cong Vs Sikhs.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • IndianSingh

      O really, what about 1984 anti-sikh riots ? when Hindu extremist killed thought of innocent sikh. Where you were at that time ?? Drinking your mom's milk at that time? Learn your facts first then come to us. We are peaceful people but reserve our right to defend when time arrive.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • HIndu

      @IndianSingh - sat sri akal - with due respect it was Cong workers who rioted against Sikhs in 1984. It was a political party Vs Sikhs and not Hindus Vs Sikhs. Indira Gandhi was hardly a Hindu - married to a parsi/muslim and her policies like her father's were quite anti-hindu and anti-national in nature.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Lot12Truth

      Vaibhav, how many "common" people in India really object to the wrong things in India. When did you observe something wrong in your state (hope its not Punjab) and gave a Gandhi dharna. Atleast these days, its happening due to Anna.

      I would mentions two points, so don't blame "ordinary" folks since they are spineless.

      – Sikhs should have objected to Bhindrawale making a "home" in Golden Temple. Its only meant to pray, not to be some body's home or guarded because all temples are supposed to be open

      – Politics of Congress/Akalis and whomsover were involved.

      They never cared or never will about common folks. These people live and die by their agenda. Look at current state of Punjab. Badal is nothing but a "corrupt Bhindrawale". Get it !!!

      Till they get glory or money, nobody cares. That was 80's. I hope the younger generation in India takes some action and elects young blood which seperates "state" and "religion", so that the "common" people benefit.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • Vaibhav

      Comments below really proved my point.. Sikhs are 'peaceful people'. All of them are speaking language of peaceful people.. isnt it? @Lot12Truth I agree with you. Exactly my point about bhindranwale. All I was objecting was this propaganda via media to convey on contrary to what community is. I condemn the shooting in Gurudwara but all due respect to sikhs, I dont think community is peaceful. Its a hogwash. Dont believe me just read pathetic replies to my post by 'common sikhs'.

      August 9, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • SK

      I bet you'd go to someone's funeral and, instead of expressing sorrow, you'd bang on about how you didn't like them.

      August 9, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • paul

      koi baat nahin hindhu. how many hindhus kill muslims in India. I suppose hindhuism is not a peacefull religion either.

      Like all people...Sikhs attack only in self defence.

      That is every humans right...

      August 9, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • paul

      If it wasn't for Guru Gobind Singh and the Sikhs all of India would be muslim and your name would be Vaibhav Khan.

      If hindhuism is to peacefull why is Bhagavat Geet written in the middle of a battle?

      you are a puppet.

      August 9, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • iluv_USA

      "Hindu" – you are absolutely right. Right on the money!!

      August 9, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Reality

      You are defining all SIkhs by bhindrawala. sikhs are peace loving, unlike Hindus they didn't burn their widows and didn't called human beings untouchable and treated them worse than animals. Sikhism has uplift poor, they have immigrated to land of opportunity. Whereas only higher caste Hindus like yourself have come to USA, the untouchable most in need have neither means or awareness to beter their life, you have token few to parade around. Go figure who is peace loving...

      August 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Simran

      Vaibhav, please read for yourself before forming an opinion. Dont just believe what the ruling Govt wanted the world to believe. Read about Operation Blue Star, how an army marched into the Golden Temple (imagine the same happening to your most sacred temple). Then one Sikh (not a Sikh Organization) shot Mrs Indira Gandhi. What followed was a country wide massacre of innocent Sikhs – they were literally burnt alive. Terror in Punjab started and lasted almost a decade, where innocent young men were also taken away by police without information of any sort to their families. And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it ended – Bang, just like that! Hey there, did all those Terrorist Sikhs decide to become saints in one day!!! Cant you see the political manipulation there? During the terror in Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs both lost, who won – Congress swept the the Assembly elections in 1992 and the very next thing you know – there is no terror in Punjab!

      August 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • jacob

      is hindu a peaceful religion sir. in just60 years of independence history of your country, u have massacred ur own citizens numerous times.
      sikhs in 1984, muslims, 1992 2002, christians 2008.
      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBw91wtO2AU&w=640&h=360]

      August 11, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  20. Mark

    Baldness would remove the need for the turbans.

    August 9, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • sukhdev

      Oh really, what a relief. where were you all these years? you gave the sikhs a solution. now read carefully what i am going to write. the TURBAN is the simble of freedom, a simble of indepent. this is the crown of a sikh. this is the recognition of a sikh. sikhs live in the usa and other parts of the western world more than 100 years. there is nothing new here. it is just about time to wake up and see around, get some knowledge about sikhs. just type SIKHS on your screen and i bet ,you wont say anymore--Baldness would remove the need for the turbans.at this dificult time,we need your co-operation and support. end of the day, we are all human beings. best wishes.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:48 am |
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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.