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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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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)
  1. iluv_USA

    We Sikhs cannot be sitting ducks. Our Tenth Guru taught us to bear arms to deal with the situation at that time. If push comes to shove, we will be getting gun training, providing gun training to our families and providing them legal guns because – we are not going back. We are here to stay and we have the zeal, the revengeful feeling, the ability to avenge and the bravery to deal with white supremacists. These nuts have absolutely no clue about Sikhs. Western media is lamenting that Kabul cannot be conquered. What a bunch of BS. We should tell them to go look at the map of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Kabul was under his belt.

    August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @iluv_USA,

      invading Afghanistan is the precusor to the fall of most of the empires that tried it.

      Sikh Empire
      Sikh conquest of Afghanistan: 1813, 1823, 1834 and 1837
      End of the Sikh Empire: 1849

      British:
      First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842)
      Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)
      Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)
      End of the "Pax Britannia": 1914
      End of the Empire: 1940s

      Soviet
      Invasion of Afghanistan: 1979-1989
      End of Soviet Union: 1991

      US
      Invasion of Afghanistan: 2001-present
      End of the "Pax Americana": ????, well not yet anyway!

      Of all the invaders of Afghanistan, the one with the most significant impact were the 8th century Muslims.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Simran.M

      Dear iluv USA,
      Who are you? A born Indian Hindu or a Sikh???? Please decide for once and all. Until then, you are a moron.

      August 12, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Bill Maher Nails It


    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAvDtPz33w0&w=640&h=360]

    August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Moiraesfate

      That was so awesome

      August 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  3. lovUSA

    I am a born Indian hindu and personally like the guys in turban, they look very smart and unique in turban and earn respect naturally in india.
    I remember two of my chidlhood schoolmates who used to wear turban since we were at playschool but removed it and cut his hairs when we reached college, not sure about them but I personally felt very sad about it.

    August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  4. Singhup

    I will practice my second ammendement rights for a few of those nuts.I can assure, the news will be a lot different, next time a nut enter a sikh temple with a motive to kill.Sikhisim does not only preach fredom of religion, but it also emphasizes right to arm for protection. In fact, it was built in to the religion a 100 years before the second ammendment.

    August 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  5. Curiosity

    I'd be more concerned about being named "Manmeet" if I was his brother...

    August 9, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  6. It's sad

    Too bad these guys can't wear a turban. It's a symbol of their faith, much like a Christian wearing a crucifix. We have freedom of religion in the US. That means ALL religions. What's sad and scary is that so many Americans are so ignorant as to traditions of other countries. I sat in an airport next to a very nice couple from Wisconsin (or so I thought) at first. They saw a couple of Sikhs walk by and made some snide remarks about "rag head Muslims". I explained to them that those men weren't Muslims. They looked at me blankly, completely not understanding what I was telling them. Is our country getting to be so full hate and bigotry that the very foundations of who we are as a people are under attack? This country's greatness was built on the diversity of people who came here. The reason we are such a great country is not because we have denied new cultures a place here, but because we have welcomed and allowed it. The new cultures bring new ideas, new ways to do things, and America benefits from that. I hope we are not becoming a country full of fearful, bigoted, ignoramuses, but it appears we are. There are very dark days ahead for us.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Aman

      I wish there should be more people like you in this country. So ignorant are the people here that when september 11 happened, people are shouting at me calling me Bin Laden looking at my turban and little did they know that what religion I belong to. What a shame, the greatest and the richest coutnry in the world is so poor when it comes to recognizing religions.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Kevin

      The phenomena of willful ignorance and fear-based hate can largely be blamed on the GOP and their misinformation machines such as Faux news.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  7. mike electrician

    I think God cares more about what is in your heart and how you act towards others than what you wear or don't wear.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Your God? Please provide proof to validate your claim.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Jeev Singh

      Sure, God does care about what is in your heart and sikhs believe in that as well. But the turban is part of who we are and is a gift from our god. So can we get rid of it just like that? Have you ever seen the Pope without his crown? There are certain articles of faith that come with every religion and turban is ours. We chose to wear it everyday unlike other religions that wear them sporadically. But in our hearts we are all the same, trying to be better humans.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Peter

    Hey forget about what people think... fitting in ? what does that even mean anymore.. People that don't understand the deference in religion should not even be american. As far as i know, everyone in this country is an immigrant. What makes America is that we are all different located in one place. This is why America is so great! Wear your Turban! "but it does look good with your hair out".

    August 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Wear anything you like or like Randy Travis, nothing at all. Just don't make anyone else have to do the same.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  9. Nate Higgers

    Blacks are the missing link between human beings and primates. Muslims/Arabs are the missing link between blacks and human beings.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Will you please provide us with proof to validate your statements?

      August 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • WASP

      @nate: i truly pity you due to the shear volume of ignorance you not only display in your revolting choice of a screen name, but in the garbage that comes from that damaged mind of yours. i'm sorry for whatever happened in your life to make you so hat-eful.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Din

      it looks like you are one of those supermacist who hates everyone

      August 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Din

      Ya' think ?

      Peace...

      August 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Huebert

      Nate

      You have obviously NEVER had a biology class.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • NeuroMed97

      HAHAHA wow go to school.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Nate Higgers

      Actually, that's precisely where I learned that naggers are a completely different species than human beings, and that the genetic distance between naggers and primates is much, much closer than naggers to human beings. Biology 101.
      Enlighten yourself, learn the truth. You will much better off, and safer, for it.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Singhup

    Can you tell mme where should I go. America is my home too. Off course, there are few things I don't like, there are some inconveniences but there are a lot of things which are good in our country. Buddy, I am not going anywhere and I am staying here- with my turban. I will practice my second ammendement rights for a few of those nuts.I can assure, the news will be a lot different, next time a nut enter a sikh temple with a motive to kill.Sikhisim does not only preach fredom of religion, but it also emphasizes right to arm for protection. In fact, it was built in to the religion a 100 years before the second ammendment.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  11. Singhup

    Hey Mike, Tell me where should I go. America is my home too. Off course, there are few things I don't like, there are some inconveniences but there are a lot of things which are good in our country. Buddy, I am not going anywhere and I am staying here- with my turban. I will practice my second ammendement rights for a few of those nuts.I can assure, the news will be a lot different, next time a nut enter a sikh temple with a motive to kill.Sikhisim does not only preach fredom of religion, but it also emphasizes right to arm for protection. In fact, it was built in to the religion a 100 years before the second ammendment came in to existence.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • iluv_USA

      I guess this will be the way to go. We cannot be sitting ducks. Our Tenth Guru taught us to bear arms to deal with the situation at that time. If push comes to shove, we will be getting gun training, providing gun training to our families and providing them legal guns because you are right – we are not going back. We are here to stay and we have the zeal, the revengeful feeling, the ability to avenge and the bravery to deal with white supremacists. These nuts have absolutely no clue about Sikhs. Western media is lamenting that Kabul cannot be conquered. What a bunch of BS. We should tell them to go look at the map of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Kabul was under his belt.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Jasleen

      I agree!

      August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  12. 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-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. This Sikh turban is NOT Taliban or Muslim turban. Sikhs served in World Wars I & II. Just like other 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 9, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  13. us_1776

    In a country that is made up of so many different races, cultures, and religions, and which is a secular society it is far better if all these religious elements are kept strictly to religious ceremonies or in your own private home.

    Very few people go away displaying their relgion on their sleeve so to speak and people coming to America need to respect that and be seen in public without all this religious dress.

    .

    August 9, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • TheVocalAtheist

      Some would claim that would be against freedom.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nonsense. People wear religious jewelry. They wear T-shirts with religious phrases and pictures. They have license plates and bumper stickers on their cars that refer to religion.

      As long as such displays don't interfere with the freedoms and rights we have under law, there's no need to tell people what they can and cannot wear in public.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @us_1776

      I guess I'm not getting why you believe people of different cultures and religions, etc... "need" to 'not' dress the way they wish ?

      Peace...

      August 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Kevin

      Better put those Jesus bumper stickers and t-shirts away, then. The evangelical Christians cause more damage to our society than Sikhs ever could.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @us_1776

      You say:Very few people go away displaying their relgion on their sleeve

      What country are you living in? I see people wearing gold crosses and Jesus fish every day! Not to mention a cross or other symbol as tatoos. Everytime you watch a sporting event you can't help but see some athelete thanking Jesus for the touchdown or the gold medal. If you live in places like New York, you can't miss seeing Orthodox Jews.

      People wear their hearts and beliefs on their sleeves in this country as much, or even more than any other.

      Just because turbans look weird to you makes them no different to gold crosses or stars of David or yarmulkes or whatever.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  14. Nate Higgers

    Wearing a turban in America is pretty much the equivalent of painting a large bullseye right in the middle of your forehead.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Your mom's calling you. She wants you to get busy mowing the lawn now.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • merlinblack

      That swastika tattooed to your forehead would make for good target practice as well.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Nate Higgers

      People with low levels of intellectual prowess always hate hearing the truth. That doesn't make it false, however.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When you utter some, alert the media, troll.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Nate Higgers

      Amazingly, Tom, you actually seem to be more of a hater than myself! The only thing in this world I hate are naggers, you seem to hate anyone who ever speaks any lick of common sense whatsoever.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nope. I don't "hate" anyone; I hate ignorance and stupidity. And you have both in spades. Or you'd like everyone to think you do because you're desperately seeking attention and no one will talk to you in real life.

      You're a troll and a kid, just like Jack–in fact, you might very well be one and the same. Both of you seem incredibly needy.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  15. merlinblack

    Um...I think he missed the boat with the Iranian flag comment. You wouldn't get bothered in America for waving an Iranian flag because the only Americans educated enough to recognize it as the Iranian flag would be educated enough to not assault you for doing so. Whether or not it's attached to your head isn't really the issue.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  16. freedoms

    If you don't like it, you can always leave the US?? Why would you leave the Country you were born in??? AMERICANS wear turbins. Religious headwear is a choice, and a right...you know...land of the free? I find x rated slogans on t-shirts, and ball caps more offensive than a turbin....but you have the right to wear them. I would rather see a well dressed man in a turbin, than a man with moobs, wearing a Speedo! 🙂

    August 9, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Moiraesfate

      Knock off the " if you don't like it then leave garbage" . If everyone thought that way, blacks would still be slaves. Get over it. Change to society needs to happen somehow and this is it. Endless debates and action are how things change.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  17. OregonTom

    This is the US, wear your hair or dress how you want. Did you know that in Mexico you can not legally wear a hat inside of a bank?

    August 9, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • oodoodanoo

      But you can wear a bank inside your hat? Weird!

      August 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  18. maximillion

    The dude on the right looks better. He's all big and sht with dark shiny hair. Who wouldn't like that better than the dumb look'n turbine dude?

    August 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • YoureADummy

      Max you should try sticking your head in a TURBINE sometime. You clearly don't understand the point of the article.

      August 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  19. obsthetimes

    Why are foreign medical degress such as the ones being provided in China and Poland recognized by American hospitals !!! ??
    Its unfair to those who study in the US and pay hundreds of thousands for a license and pass stringent tests!
    Either relax domestic rules and make degrees here cheaper or stop allowing foreign degrees.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Couldn't pass, huh?

      Study harder. No one wants you practicing medicine if you're unable to compete academically.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • John

      Sorry you failed your exams. There's a whole bunch of factories in NE Indiana who are hiring, though...

      August 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • CJA

      Going to school in China is not the same as getting a license to practice medicine. All licenses are issued locally.

      You can go to school wherever you like but you must be qualified in each state.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • AGuest9

      Passing all four tests of the United States Medical Licensing Exam® (USMLE) sequence is required for any doctor to obtain a license to practice medicine in the United States. Students and physicians trained outside the US take the same test, and are scored by the same standard as US medical school students.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  20. Mike

    @averagejoe, it's not about what I want, it's about what it is. Wear your turban at your own risk. Personally I couldn't care less. There’s still a lot of racism and bigotry in this country, especially outside the big cities of the US.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Nate Higgers

      When we are all White again, racism will disappear. Before then, don't count on it, for there is much work to be done.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Nate never studied evolutionary biology, apparently.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:30 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.