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.

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. Ghost Of Michael Whitney Houston-Jackson

    I am not a Sikh or Muslim – but I wear a turban almost every day. Saves money on shampoo and water.

    August 13, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  2. SikhAmerican

    I am a Sikh American male , having been in this country for the last
    10 or so years. First I would like to thank the American people for
    thoroughly supporting the sikh community through this difficult ordeal.

    I proudly wear my turban everyday. There's been only two times
    when I have had problems wearing my turban in public- both times I was
    called "Bin Laden" . I got over it, even though at that
    time it was shocking and painful.
    But I give kudos to this great country, USA, which has given me and my family so much! I originate from India, and it is a big difference in the behavior of people there and people here. You may be surprised to know that there is more discrimination in India( amongst themselves) than it is here in the USA.
    I run my own high tech engineering business in Michigan. I am proud to say that I go to work everyday with my turban, and I have never been discriminated against . In fact, I would say that my clients are more likely to associate with me , as they remember me better , meeting me at conferences and other sessions.
    As has been noted on different forums, 99.9% of people in the USA who wear a turban are SIKHS, not muslims. In fact, the Sikh religion was formalized hundreds of years ago to counter the threat of the Mughals converting the native Hindu population to islam.
    Once again, I thank the American public for the love, respect and support !

    August 13, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  3. promisebroken

    how sikhs were betrayed.THE UNTOLD STORY

    August 13, 2012 at 12:52 am |
  4. james hotz

    Why be a rag head? Put your turbin on in the temple.

    August 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • duckforcover

      Why be a skinhead? Cover the swaztika on your forehead until you get to the cross-burning.

      August 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  5. WowCNNbadjob

    If ur religion says wear a turban and u love ur religion, love ur turban too, my 'religion' is that religion is subjective, throw me some truth Mr. Jesus, love and let live he told me, there we go.

    August 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      What, religions cannot evolve? Growing ones hair long and wearing a turban is an isolating and wasteful shibboleth. Maybe those who chose to alter their religion to be in line with reality love it more.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • insight

      I guess you have assumed some sort of an advocacy about what religious people ought to do. Hair grow naturally, how is growing hair wasteful is something beyond my comprehension. Infact, when I read the word, wasteful, words of an article I read came to my mind...I have copied its link.... http://www.sikhnet.com/news/no-hair-razing-science-here

      August 13, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  6. Seyedibar

    Turbans look silly.

    August 11, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • insight

      There is nothing silly about the turban, but your comment just throws light on what sort of a person you are!

      August 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      Oh, come on, nothing silly about something that looks like a diaper wrapped around the head? The popes hat looks silly too, as does the flying nuns, and as do the head attire of many other religions.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • insight

      Thanx for your enlightening thoughts! Your statement is a reflection of your prejudiced personality.Grow up dude, look around...the world around is already collapsing 'cause of hatred and self obsession; we don't want any more people like you to suffocate it. Irrespective of what faith you belong to, every religion , speaks of love and tolerance.Learn some . In order to be respected ,you need to be respectful towards others!!

      August 13, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Damocles


      You know you can say something looks silly without being prejudiced about it. I think kids that wear their pants down around their ankles look goofy as hell, that doesn't mean I'm prejudiced against kids, does it?

      August 13, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • insight

      These two are completely different scenarios. To make fun of someones religious beliefs reflects nothing but ego and ignorance. Using derogatory terms such as diaper for the turban, doesn't speak too well about someones tolerance towards others. No one here is imposing anyone to believe a certain way.If someone doesn't like something ,he need not care about it, why justify his opinions by demeaning others?

      August 13, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  7. mark5

    I am a Christian but not the talibangelical type. I believe in prayer as a request not a command ( I also pray to thank and to praise God). I am thought that God is love not just loving. Love is not just a concept to me, it is alive as much as gravity is not just a concept to me but a real infuence throught my life. I cannot ignore gravity but must always respect it at all times at least on earth. I don't blame it if I fall because I know it is my fault since gravity is fair to everyone. The olympic gymnasts on balance beam will attest that gravity is extremey unforgiving but fair. My point is I cannot simply dismiss gravity and do as I please since I am not the master of gravity. This is analogous to my faith in God as a Christian. I cannot simply suspend my belief in God and do as I please even for just a day. I cannot stop to love even if I can come up with a very good excuse (or something like that). To some specially atheists, I am not free even though I made that decision freely.

    An atheists on the other hand relies on reason for conducting ones life. I believe atheists can genuinely be loving and kind based on reason. I also believe that an atheist can suspend reason for a "reason" and that creates uncertainty in loving for example. For what is the guiding reason to do good to others at the expense of hurting oneself (if not love)? I need an atheist (honestly) to elucidate me on this: what is the purpose of living? Does an atheist experience pleasure in suffering for the sake of a love one? If the answer is yes, to me that atheist is more godly than some Christian I know.

    August 11, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Devout Atheist

      Only someone with no real reason to live says there has to be a "reason" or "meaning" or "purpose" of life. Life happened. Just happened. Probably on billions of planets, right now. There is not now, never has been, and never will be some "master plan" set in motion by some "creator" so get over yourself.

      THIS atheist's reason for "living" (note the subtle difference) is about the same as most everyone else's.... Being a good father to my children, a good friend to my friends, and being a hard-working, contributing member of society.

      I just don't have to believe in fairy tales to do it.

      August 11, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • mark5

      THIS atheist's reason for "living" (note the subtle difference) is about the same as most everyone else's.... Being a good father to my children, a good friend to my friends, and being a hard-working, contributing member of society.

      Being a good father, friend and member of society doesn't just happen. You've got to have a reason as most people do which you claim you are like. You made a decision to do good. But how do you define good? I believe in absolute good as exemplified by Jesus. If you believe in your own definition of good and stand by it, then that is your god if not, then you are your god.

      August 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Arkbear

      I wish I could reply to the guy who replied to your Post...because I would tell them....( life happened?? Just happened?? Well, in the order of Physics, that would be a Verb and mean Action of some sort...to ( happen )....or...( just ) happen -..and in the order of Physics, you have to have something to cause (THAT ) happening* ...so if ( happen ) is action, then WHO...WHAT...created ( happen )..to happen? There had to be a source of something, to make something ( just happen ) ...and for me, that source is the Creator of all that is...especially the ( happening ) part of creation 🙂 God is one God...He doesn't need other Gods & Goddesses to help Him out...that's why He is one..God...over all 🙂 ...thanks for sharing, and yes, I am a Cristian, and I'm Gay... but I am not Baptist or Pentecostal or anything like that..I simply believe in my Creator and that He sent His Son, Jesus to die for our sins, so that we could reside amongst the Holy one day with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ & my ALMIGHTY Creator! Whoo Hoo! 🙂 ... my Parents were Traveling Evangelists and ordained via the Southern Black Baptist Church and then we were Pent, Bap, Assembly of God.....so I've been there done that....I simply seek the Face of Jesus and the voice of God 🙂 I also believe, that out of all of the Solar System, that we are not the only Earth style planet..and that God is God the same there.. as here...May you be blessed for standing up and not be ashamed of our Lord, John –

      August 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • WowCNNbadjob

      mark5 that's also what the OP insinuated on. It's love :]

      August 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Brian Macker

      Mark5, your questions make me sad that your religion has indoctrinated you to be so bigoted. I don't assume Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, polytheists, ancestor worshippers, etc. don't experience love or feel a purpose to their lives. So why should you? The only explanation I can come up with is that your religion has spent a considerable amount of time defaming others in a predujicial manner. It's not just you either because these are common questions among Christians. I is almost like you preachers actually ask these from th pulpit, give you the wrong answers, and then you parrot them.

      August 12, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Brian Macker

      "Does an atheist experience pleasure in suffering for the sake of a love one?"

      This was your most offensive question. First off, how can experiencing pleasure be called suffering? What exactly are you talking about here? Don't you see atheists going to work, feeding their children, making them breakfast, and sending them to college? Is that suffering? I have no clue what you are talking about, because it makes next to zero sense. I see nothing godly in simply making a tradeoff. I like my loved ones more than I dislike working for a living and giving them stuff. The same would be true if I laid down my life for some person, persons, or principle.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Brian Macker

      Also the only times I can recall suffering with regards to loved ones are 1) when something bad happened to them, and I empathaticly suffered, 2) when they had extraordinary care like being sleepless keeping a colicy baby safe and comfortable, or 3) defending a loved one from a crime. I don't remember such events as particularly pleasurable. I feel go about myself for doing them but was definitely not feeling pleasure at the time. I was feeling fear, doubt, and other emotions but never pleasure at the situation.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Brian Macker

      I also think you are confused about the role of reason in the atheists life. Reason is a tool I use to attain and adjust my goals and not a foundational motivator. My foundational motivators are my desires. I eat because I am hungry, not because I use reason to figure out that not eating will cause me to starve. If I didn't feel hunger then there would need to be some other desire driving me to eat, and there are plenty of others. If I became I'll with a disease that caused me to no longer feel hunger then I might be my desire to help others, or to learn, that would keep me eating. Reason only allows me to determine the best way to achieve the satisfaction of hunger, desire to help others, to learn, to avoid suffering, etc.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  8. 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.

    August 11, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • insight

      The people who massacre innocent individuals in the name of religion, do not belong to any religion . Please lets stop blaming the entire religion, or entire communities for the acts commited by a few. Lets spread the message of love.Lets look at ourselves , introspect and uplift ourselves than blame others.Thats how we can heal our society.

      August 11, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • Brian Macker

      Do you have any evidence that these Hindus were motivated by religious teachings, or religious leaders to commit these acts? If not then one cannot claim that the religion is responsible. It is clear that some Christian sects can be held responsible for witch burning, because certain versions of the bible advocate such behavior, and certain religious leaders advocated and practiced the behavior. Is that the case here? I don't know.

      August 12, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  9. Sankarshan Das Adhikari

    I appreciate the courage of the Sikhs to publicly declare their devotion to God even at the risk of being shot dead for doing so. The USA was founded by people who were persecuted in Europe for their religious practice and wanted a place where they could freely practice their religion. I am a Hare Krishna, and I proudly wear a traditional clay marking on my forehead (tilaka), my shaved head with the tuft of hair in the back, and my traditional robe (Dhoti). I live in Austin, Texas, the place where it is commonly said "Keep Austin Weird". I fit well into Austin. I am doing my share to keep it weird by dressing in a way that is considered weird. I think the USA as whole could learn a good lesson from the folks here in Austin. We have Sikh temple here, and they are welcome in our community.

    August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes otherwise rational adults into believing in imaginery friends like children do.

    August 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  11. Douglas


    Sikhs should wear their tubans with pride and without fear. Please stop trying to apologize for the white supremacists who disrupted and desecrated a solemn religious service. It is time for the white supremacists to change or leave and go back to their "native lands". We don't weant them here any more.

    To my Sikh brothers and sisters – I stand with you in solidarity against white supremacist fascism.

    The temple leader is a national hero, as is the police Lt. who risked his life to save Sikh citizens worshiping peacefully.

    Up with America and down with racism and bigotry!


    August 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  12. Tea

    I used to live in ignorance as an atheist as well. Its a dreadful empty existence. In reality, weak minded people are atheist because they are too arrogant and self-righteous to think that EVEN THEY were created. There is overwhelming evidence in nature that there is a Creator behind it all. But you cant force FACTS upon someone who is prejudice and has their puny minds made up. I was humble enough to LEARN THE TRUTH...............

    August 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • niknak

      There is absolutely zero evidence in nature of there being a "creator."
      But there is overwhelming evidence for evolution.
      You must be a very weak minded individual if you cling to some fariry tale like a little child clings to a security blanket.
      But you are just right for the people who make their money off peddling snake oil.
      Religion, the greatest scam ever foisted upon humans.

      August 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  13. Singh

    One simple comment: Why try to blend in when you are born to outstand?

    August 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  14. Dal4cats

    Wearing a turban doesn't make anyone any more Sikh than wearing a cross makes someone a Christian, carrying a rosary around makes someone a Catholic, wearing a hijab makes a woman a Muslim, wearing a beard and avoiding non-animal powered machinery makes anyone Amish...those are all earthly doo-dads and bangles and have nothing to do with religion. You can be a member of your religion without practicing any of these affectations.

    August 10, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • insight

      Who is a mortal like us ,to judge on what attributes make a sikh or a christian. If the media was sensible enough, it wouldn't have focussed their attention on religious beliefs but would rather have started a debate on how to end racism.To sacrifice your religious beliefs is not the answer to end racism or intolerance.

      August 10, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  15. DD

    Finally after mere 4 days CNN and other media removes the news of Sikh Massacre from their websites. Brilliant, an Attack on American soil by White on other colored people will be soon forgotten.Nothing against Caucasians but thats the reality in USA.

    August 10, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  16. DD

    Finally after mere 4 days CNN and other media removes the news of Sikh Massacre from their websites. Brilliant, an Attack on American soil by White on other colored people will be soon forgotten.Nothing against Caucasians but thats the reality in US.

    August 10, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  17. insight

    Then why did Europeans bring their culture and religion when they came to North America;according to you,they should have forgotten their roots and should have just become like red indians, as the land of America belonged to the Red Indians and they were the foreigners then!

    August 10, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  18. What Happened

    I'm sad for those people who lost family members and friends in this senseless murder of innocent people. Why did anyone bring religion into this? Someone killed people that he was not supposed to kill. Was it mental illness that caused him to do what he did? Was it the music he listened to? Who really knows. What we need to do is stop killing each other in this country and then justifying it with BS.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • R K

      Death is Death, I agree with that, however it's always important to find the motive or intent of the shooter for all types of crimes. In this instance, this crime wasn't a mere bank robbery. A person didn't want to get rich quick. Wade believed that a group of people were a threat to America, a threat to American ideals. These people that were the "threat" were all Sikhs and were in this case, the "target".

      Also, not to state the obvious but, you can't not bring religion into the scenario if the crime was in a temple...........

      August 9, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  19. insight

    I was just thinking, why this debate- turban: to wear or not to wear? Its a personal belief . Why can't we let people live with their sacred beliefs rather than keep questioning them or ridiculing them, so that they change and become like us.
    All religions teach equality. Did not Jesus say, God is one, did not Muhammad say, God is one . There are as many paths to God, as there are souls on this earth.The basic point was to love God and honour his will. To love God, is to love his people; when God created us differently, with different colours, in different environments,thus emerged different cultures and religions at different places, then what problem do we have with difference.Ridiculing differences is ridiculing God.
    Stay blessed
    A humble sikh.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • Douglas

      Good point!
      The people with the Turbans don't need to change, it is the racists who want to kill them that need to change.
      It is scary to see CNN put this kind of "debate over Turbans" out here as if the Turban is a red flag for some
      kind of justified reverse terror attack.

      August 10, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    August 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • kindless

      Actually, atheism is wonderful for children and all people!

      Atheists have strong minds and good at helping weak-minded people work through their struggles with other people or the imaginary forces or obstacles that men have made up. Atheists encourage people to take responsibility for their actions within society instead of having their misdeeds excused and often hidden within their religion (comforting their weak minds, but simultaneously disserving society).

      Break the matrix of deception by all religions.

      If the thought leaving your imaginary friends behind is just too much, or makes you want to go p00py, then try Atheism Lite™ (agnosticism) for a period of time to ease your way into a much more rewarding, peaceful life.

      It is written.


      August 10, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs! ,

      August 10, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes otherwise rational adults into believing in imaginery friends like children do.

      August 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
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About this blog

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.