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. Pres

    When Sikhs look like Talibans; when Sikhs act like Talibans by taking same training in Pakistan ISI campuses, then Sikhs are Talibans.Media is NOT reporting following facts (you can verify it by Google search): 1. The world's biggest Aviation terrorism was done by a group of North American Sikhs by blowing up Air-India (Kanishka) on 23rd June 1985, killing 323 people including babies and children and women. 2. The holy Golden Temple of Sikhs was filled with Anti Aircraft guns and machine guns in 1984 ( purchased from Pakistan). Those terrorists Sikhs trained in same Pakistan ISI campus where Al Qaidea and Taliban got training in 1980s. 3. Sikhs gunned down first Indian Women PM Indira Gandhi (adopted daughter of Mahatma Gandhi). 4. Several innocent labor class people were massacred in buses in Indian State of Punjab by Sikhs. 5. Primary reason the USA gave visas (refugee status) to Sikhs, is because the USA wanted to leverage against India in 1980s, as India was friendly with the then USSR.

    August 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • therealpeace2all


      Overgeneralizing 'all' Sikh's in the *terrorist* category, are we ?


      August 9, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Huebert

      The Taliban are religious supremacist they don't tolerate any other religion including Sick (Sickism?).

      August 9, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Amit

      Buddy, please go and check history. There were books written about 1984 Golden temple attack, its not as simple as you are saying here and misguiding ppl. NO country ever has attacked the most religious shrine, and that whatt govt of india did at that time actually attacing a religious shrine with tanks. In our religion carrying weapon is not forbidden, right to wear weapons thus ppl at that time were fighitng against Government, to get independence from India, but using it to kill some one is absolutely sin unless you are protecting some one else. 80% of indian army used to be of sikhs pre independence, we fought with USA, as well with British against Germany. We fought in all the wars.. Can you generalize all whites based on this once incident, you cant thus you cant generalize all sikhs based on one incident, that they are terrorist, shame on you.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Vachoa

      Sikhs are Taliban?? I can’t believe these racist comments are being allowed on CNN.

      Are you here to justify Sikhs who got massacred?

      Can I ask you therefore: if you are a Neo-nazi or an upper-caste Hindu Supremacist who thinks of himself being part of some "superior mankind" and has right to brutalize others? In fact, weren’t Sikhs slaughtered all over India by Hindu mobs?

      I googled the facts and actually the world’s largest aviation terrorism is being point to be committed by upper-caste dominated government of India by the CSIS.


      August 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. ballard

    I say, If your turban isn't dirty then wear it.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  3. Jack

    Ever hear of When In Rome Do As The Romans Do?

    August 9, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hmm. I've heard it. I've seldom seen someone capitalize every word, though. Is it a law? Since when are we required to look like everyone else?

      August 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Alert CItizen

      In Rome...Not USA!

      August 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • therealpeace2all


      Hi -Jack...

      " Ever hear of When In Rome Do As The Romans Do? "

      I'm very curious as to where you are going with this.


      August 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Jacobian

      Ever hear an ignorant talk..

      August 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Vachoa

      Are you still living in Rome?

      August 9, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  4. Petercha

    If a Sikh wants to wear a turban, I say let him! They aren't muslims and they don't believe in violence except as a last resort.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Nlo

      You have an IQ of an amoeba. If at all if you have one. Should I bundle you with Germans, who were Christians and white who killed millions of innocent jews. Go read your violent history. And you don't have to go too far to read it. Unfortunately your history starts on sep 11 and even then you chose to close your eyes and carry on. There are far more Muslims in US then Sikhs. How many have resorted to violence? And the guy who killed these Innocent Sikhs last week was not a Muslim. He was a white, Christian American, probably just like you. Does that make you a terrorist you idiot!

      August 9, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Simran

      Good to hear that SIkhs can wear turbans. But I would also feel better if we stop saying "BCOZ they are not Muslims". While you want to give us Sikhs the right of freedom and equality, in the same breath, we should also be giving it to Muslims.

      August 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  5. fiftyfive55

    LYNN JENKINS.ESQ.-you just put yourself down with sayingyou are a black woman and saying you worked hard to get where you are.Sorry but untilwe totally rid ourselves of the requirements of stating race on an application,we will never know how you got your job or if you are any good at it or not sinxe it is illegal to say anything negative to a person of color in this country.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How's it feel when the shoe's on your foot, 55? You felt it necessary to state you were white and that you think you're being "oppressed." You opened the door to the issue of race; you can't bit@h when someone else walks through to challenge you.

      You sound like a whiny baby. Grow up, already.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • jonesc22

      The fact that you beleive that she is only capable of getting a job because she is a black woman is what is wrong here. Are we to assume then that the only reason you are (likely) unemployed is because you're a white male? Or is it because you spend your time on here bashing others instead of bettering yourself? Are you also aware that most places now have the option of "prefer not to say" when it comes to race and gender, although gender can usually be assumed by a person's first name, I really don't understand your hatred for anybody who is not a white male. In your earlier post, you said white men are assumed to be racist, which I can agree with in part, but you really are trying to prove that stereotypes are often true, aren't you?

      August 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Saagar

      The problem with white supremacist groups (and other racists) is easy to understand. They have no plan. They blame immigrants & claim they want to secure a future for "white" kids. But they fail to uncover the root cause of the problem. Where are the white kids? The white population is shrinking and it has been for the last 4 decades, not just in the US but across the world (a few communities are exceptions). Even CNN has run stats on this in the past. With economic success has come the freedom for white women, freedom to take command of their destiny and chose who to marry, when to marry and how many kids (if at all) to have. There in lies the root cause.

      You can't afford to lose the immigrants, be it Mexicans as cheap labor or the Indian Sikh as a doctor, engineer and other high-skilled work force or even the cab driver whose kids are enrolled in a masters program (and much higher productivity).
      The divorce rates are sky high; Americans don't want to go to universities in pursuit of higher education and load themselves in debt. China & India have narrowed the gap in education and hence the rise of the H1B visa.
      It’s almost ironic. The explosion in population and advancement in technology made the white man look outside Europe for new land and resources; today it is the shrinking population base that has forced the white man to call in people from all over the world to sustain his high standard of living.
      But people overseas speak other languages, follow other religions, eat different food, follow customs that are unheard of and that’s what gives rise to the supremacist. Unfortunately, this trend can't change overnight like the stock portfolio of a company. The clashes may see a temporary pause but with time, the discontent may continue to grow because they simply don’t have a plan. To me, the bottom line is that you can't kill (or deport) 700,000 Sikhs, millions of Muslims, Asians, Mexicans, South americans, black americans etc. The list goes on.

      August 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  6. Jack

    Sikh's aren't muslims, I hope they recover well from nut that attacked them.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  7. Al Thomas

    In a place like India where people wear different kinds of dresses depending on their religion, place of origin, age etc., Sikhs wearing turban is rather normal. Even there, I know several Sikhs who have chosen to ditch the long hair because they find themselves out of place with the turban. One clear scenario is where a person with a turban is called a "Sardarji" and is the target of "Sardarji jokes". If he cuts the hair, he overnight turns into a normal man.

    When religions force meaningless customs on their followers and the most gullible of the followers, even after centuries, follow those customs even after they are mature enough to make decisions for themselves, isolation and extremism are waiting to happen. Extremism could be among the gullible followers or those around them. It was not too long ago when Sikhs resorted to terrorism to create their own nation (Khalistan) because they thought they didn't belong in India. Hate groups in US are examples of extremism among people around the gullible followers.

    What is the solution? My first recommendation is for normal people to stop being gullible and boycott religions. Religions (all of them) are poisons. But, feeding on the common man's various fears, they have become a part of our everyday lives that it is just not practical to think of a world without them now.

    My next recommendation – The think-tanks at religions who talk about moderation, but seldom practice it, have to have a serious look at their customs. They should ask themselves – "Do these customs mean anything?", "Do they now have the same significance they had in a completely different environment centuries ago?". It is very important for all religions to keep their silly customs to themselves and try to assimilate to the world around them. If not, hate groups are going to be born.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  8. Singhup

    Let me say, as a turbaned sikh. I have tried going the other way shaved my hair, loose my turban. But I came back to my old self. The two years I went without my turban, I felt incomplete, naked in a way. May be for me, my turban works like an anxiety wrap works for dogs. Its my my choice, my right to practice my religion my way, as long it does not harm anyome. Tom, Tom, the pier's on, I might look like a penis head, diaper on the head to a few or outdated to a few, so be it. I don't care, its called being comfortable in your skin. I feel lucky to have that feeling. "tere bana sarbat da bhala": O lord , I pray for well being of everyone.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Tirilei

      Good for you, I'd support you in that view. And I'm European.
      The only thing I wonder: If the turban serves only to manage long hair, does anyone in your community just wear their hair open or braided? Shiny long black hair looks beautiful.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  9. Tha Chikin

    Only a complete moron would mistake a Sikh for a Muslim... oh wait... we are completely surrounded.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Jack

      I'm curious, how do they look different? I have nothing against sikh's and welcome them.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  10. Justaguy

    I have had the pleasure of working with a few Sikh in the Electronics field. I always thought the turbans were pretty awesome. One guy close to my age had different ones in different colors so he coordinated them with his outfit. He, to this day, is one of the most humble people I've met. I learned all I could about the Sikh religion and beliefs. I wish there were more people like him in the world. People without judgement or fears because of differing views be they religious or otherwise. They respect all religions. If you are a Christian, then be a GOOD Christian. If you are a Jew, then be a GOOD Jew. Etc.

    What a senseless tragedy. We need to stop HATE and hate groups.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  11. geckopelli

    Think for yourself, dress yourself, be yourself instead of trying to live up to someone else's nightmare.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  12. NorCalMojo

    I see it as a matter of assimilation. If you intentionally present yourself as different, people are going to see you as an outsider. You can call it ignorant, but it's you who is ignorant. Any sociologist worth his degree will tell you that large demographic shifts will cause friction. That's not a problem with the United States, that's a human condition.

    As for religious bigotry. That's a huge joke. We don't have religious tolerance in this country. The taboo's against religious hate are pretty arbitrary. Certain religions are protected and some are open game.

    If you sit silent while people bash Christians and Mormons, you shouldn't be surprised when the same happens to people in your religion.

    As for the diversity crusaders. Keep wallowing in your self righteousness and delusions of tolerance. Keep using it as a backdoor way to express your own bigotry. Keep expecting the impossible. Keep dismissing people who you don't agree with as xenophobic and hateful. Keep telling them they don't matter anymore. Shut down that dialogue once again. See what happens.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Alert CItizen

      Thank you! Come again!

      August 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ooooh, "see what happens." Why don't you tell us all what will happen there, oh soothsayer?

      August 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  13. Phil

    I am not racist against anyone. When you move to another country for living or for making money, you have to follow their living standards and cultural at least in front of public. America is the country that respects all relegions. I grow up in India as a Christian. Non Hindus are not allowed to enter into temples. But I can go to any temple in US. That is the feealing of a good country. In middle east, you cannot build a christian church. No one pushing you to go to another country for work or living. you are choosing your path. Of course I have a sympathy on the Sick victoms who were at the prayer when this incident happend. If you read Indian news paper, you come to know how many Christian missionaries assassinations happening every week. The Goverment is not taking much actions for that. In this case US goverment did a great job with their response and respect to the Victoms family.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Alert CItizen

      If you try to enter a hindu temple with shoes on then rightfully so. Please don't tell the stories of your ignorance as people's intolerence.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Not everyone of another faith has moved to the US, many are native born US citizens.

      Also, the US constituition guarantees all of us freedom of religion. Some religions require women to dress a certain way (long skirts, shirt sleeves that cover the arms). Some religions require a specific piece of clothing be worn. We have no business telling anyone that to fit in and not be discriminated against (or killed in their place of religion) they must abandon these parts of their faith.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Vijay

      Phil –

      I have to disagree with you. We don't need to change because we have come to US. We don't have to adopt to US culture. We stand upon our culture and we have to practice what has been taught to us for centuries.

      August 9, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Truth

      @Phil, What a blatant lies from you. You are just not racist but in fact you are an ignorant and propagandist. First of all, try to learn proper English and addressing properly to the community about whom this article is about. The religion name is "Sikh" and not "Sick" and they are victims and not "victoms". Now come to your lies. In india, you can easily go into any temple across the nation other than Puri temple (which has history of incursion by non-Hindus and they strict to rule that only Hindu can enter). You can also go to any Gurudwaras (Sikh's worship place). It is very common sight that Sikh and Hindus go to each other's worship places. On the other hand, I know Christians and Muslims don't want to enter in Temples themselves for being becoming infidel. They are very narrow-minded people in India. I had one christian friend and he would not enter temple as he thought he would not remain christian, on the other hand Hindus like myself are very broad-minded and interested in learning others' religion and culture. I have gone to churches and to Muslims' Dargahs. Now come to your point about freedom of religion. I think India is most diverse in terms of religion and this land has given birth to many religions. There are people from many religion (Shias, Ahmedis, Zoroastrians, Jews) who kept coming to India for asylum when they were killed and persecuted in their own land. That is why you can find Jews and other people who settled in India centuries ago. India and Hinduism had tradition of looking at all religion equally even in age when people in middle east were killing each other in name of religion whether crusaders or Jihadist. Now, This is blatant lie that christrians are killed in India. There were few incident in past but on the other hand missionaries in India involved only in conversion by money and in name of social cause. Now, Truth is that Christians and Muslims in India have Hindu ancestry. Even your ancestors would have been Hindu. This is known that new converts are more fanatical to get more acceptance in faith and would also go to length to hate their earlier religion. They would keep finding fault in their earlier religion to justify their conversion but this is just like cutting your roots. This is unfortunate for India that we have so many converts and who are hateful towards their own country and would not leave chance to destroy or demean it and that is exactly what most christians like you and muslims are doing in India.

      August 9, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Amit

      Phil, Just to clarify, Sikhism is the religion based on equality, that means any one can come to SIkh Gurudwara, any time of day, no matter what religion what caste, and from any direction ( Golden temple has four gates in each direction to signify it). One of the reason that sikhi philosphy of equality came into existence because even lower caste hindus were not allowed to go to temples, leave alone christians. America is beautiful, democratic country, and with democracy means people has right to differ. Who ever says that, oh well this is not american culture is totally offtrack. People came to usa several hunder years ago because of religious freedom. its about tolerance buddy, tomorrow if some one start killing based on skil color, so will you go and get your skin color changed?

      August 9, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  14. dmoulton

    I am sad to admit that it took the murder of the Sihk man a few days after 9/11 for me to learn about Sihks and what they represent. I hope that more of us can learn from these murders that Sihks are a wonderful addition to the American Experiment, and we should welcome their presence and added diversity.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  15. Suman Singh

    As time is progressing, human mind is degrading becoming animal day by day. It's shemful to have this kind of discussion. Let's respect others choices.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Jack

      tell that to the muslims in the world

      August 9, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • therealpeace2all


      " tell that to the muslims in the world "

      Your argument is a non-sequitur. It doesn't negate what the original poster stated.

      Just more biased, over-generalization on your part.


      August 9, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  16. bobbo

    Actually, The guy without the Turban looks better.... Hey – If your in America.... Do as the Americans do!

    August 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Which Americans? Gang-bangers? Swimsuit models? Ho okers? Businessmen/women? Football players? Rockers? Amish? Mennonites? Orthodox Jews? K-mart shoppers?

      What Americans are you talking about? Since when are you the model of "America"?

      August 9, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Alert CItizen

      which is ....do what you want to do!!!!

      August 9, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  17. Jon

    This is America isn't it. Where whatever you want.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  18. Charlie

    I always wondered how they (turbans) worked!
    Of course, in public places, with some friends of mine, when I speak to them in voice over the cell phone I do so in either Russian or German- because in my peripheral vision, like on a public bus, I know it triggers mild paranoia amongst everyone else!

    August 9, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. Bill Maher Nails It


    August 9, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  20. mike

    I always thought the turbans made them look distinguished.

    August 9, 2012 at 10:23 am |
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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.