awe, humility, hope and a few other things I might notice

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Sikh turban is not appropriated by women

This past year the turban has been discussed in the news more than usual. Generally any news about turbans helps to educate the public and my initial feelings are always hopeful. Yet as I read deeper into the articles on the internet and newspapers I become confused and often angry. Whether it is the banning of head coverings in France, the hearings on the secular charter in Quebec or the exploration of Sikh women’s identities there is unfortunately no shortage of misinformation that leads to my consternation.

This past weekend my husband and I decided to finally put our thoughts to paper and we worked on a response to an especially obvious error in an otherwise highly respected online magazine. We began by writing to request an important clarification on the article “Urban Turban” in the India Tribune which was reposted to and other websites. The article was well written, a sincere effort, and we are generally impressed with the high quality of articles on However, both the authors of the article and the editors’ statement within the article support a common inaccuracy about the appropriation of the turban.  We wanted to provide a more historical perspective on the requirement of wearing a turban. We were convinced from our own knowledge and our convictions that the turban is neither appropriated from men nor was it in any way less mandatory for Sikh women until the writing of the SGPC Rehat Maryada (Sikh code of conduct) in the mid 20th century.

The authors of “Urban Turban” write:

“The answer was found in the distinct look some amritdhari women have adopted in recent decades, by appropriating the dastaar or turban in order to assert themselves as equals within the Sikh milieu.”

I was immediately upset. Sikh women have not appropriated the turban from men, not to make themselves appear equal to men nor is the practice of Sikh women wearing turbans a recent development

Appropriation is defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”

I recognize that the intention and tone of the article overall highlights strong women and infers positive attributes to women who wear turbans. It also quotes various women (and the comments sections had several posters who agreed) that the Sikh turban belongs to women as well as men. However, this makes the error about appropriation all the more obvious. Also, as is typical of cursory explorations of women in Sikhi, it makes of muddle of history, anecdote and opinion.

Published writing becomes endowed with authority and if the authors say the turban was appropriated while their interviewees say it is not, the interviewee becomes more of an anecdote, and the writer is elevated to the factual. Just a few paragraphs after the appropriation statement, the authors themselves discuss the inspiration of Mata Bhag Kaur, a Sikh woman warrior who wore a turban in the early 18th century, at the very beginning of the formation of the Khalsa. It is disingenuous to describe the adoption of the turban or its use as a demonstration of equality as a recent phenomenon while also using the example of a turban wearing woman from 300 years ago. This framing creates a sense that the example of Mata Bhag Kaur was a remarkable exception in history.

Although history notoriously excludes facts about women, there are historical references to not only to Mata Bhag Kaur , but also Mata Sahib Kaur ji (mother of the Khalsa and wife of Siri Guru Gobind Singh ji), Rani Sahib Kaur (Queen of Patiala, 18th Century), Rani Raj Kaur (18th century) and many other Sikh women wearing turbans. Not until 1945 when the SGPC developed and published a modern Rehatnama and wrote that it was optional for Sikh women to tie a turban has it become notably less common. This does not invalidate the original requirement or the prevalence of the practice dating back 300 years. Additionally, even the SGPC refers to the turban as a requirement for all Sikhs without exception when it is politically expedient to do so.

“Every practicing Sikh is enjoined upon to have unshorn hair and have it covered by the turban. It is mandatory for every Sikh and no one has an exemption or option to this [sic] basic Sikh tenets and tradition.”-Gurcharan Singh Torah writing as President of the SGPC to the President of France

Women have not appropriated the turban because it was always intended for both men and women. Several online sites have highlighted the history, including (AKJ), (sikhnet video of Shanti Shanti Kaur) and others have discussed the experiences of women with dastars (Lakhpreet Kaur). I will include just a few examples of the historical writings indicating the turban is a requirement for all Sikhs.

Bhai Daya Singh ji was one of the first five Sikhs to take Amrit from Guru Gobind Singh ji. He wrote the original Rehatnama based on a conversation between himself and Guru Gobind Singh ji when he asked Guruji about the requirements of the Khalsa , that is to say the requirements for all Amritdhari Sikhs.

Pehley kach pehrani

kesh ikathey kar jura

dastar sajavani

gatrey siri shaib

hath jor khara rehey.

First ensure that each candidate for the Khalsa

wears kachera (underwear covering the thighs),

ties the hair in a topknot and

covers the same with a dastar,

wears a kirpan in a shoulder strap

and stands with folded hands.

It is important to note that the term Khalsa is always gender neutral.

Bhai Daya Singh also specifically wrote:

Women should tie their hair in topknot and should not keep them loose.

Guru Gobind Singh ji is quoted by hazoori Sikh scholar Bhai Chaupa Singh ji (who also served as the caretaker of the Sahibzadas (four sons) of Guru Gobind Singh ji):

Kach, Karra, Kirpan, Kanga, Keski.

Eh Panj Kakaar Rahit Dhaarey Sikh Soyee.

To be a Sikh, one must observe five rahits (requirements) of wearing five Sikh Symbols beginning with “K”.

Kach (underwear covering the thighs), Karra (iron bracelet), Kirpan (sword), Kangha (wooden comb), and Keski (small turban).

The term keski has in modern times been separated into Kes Ki which changes its meaning from Keski- turban to Kes Ki- of the kesh (hair). Many scholars have pointed out that this change is a misreading of the original intent and have innumerable references to support the term keski rather than kesh.

To be honest, some of this was new information for me as I had not distinguished keski from kes ki since I usually read in English, not Gurmukhi. Because I had already made my decision to wear a turban I did not know that the SGPC Rehat Maryada was so recently adopted and so indeterminate –

t. For a Sikh, there is no restriction or requirement as to dress except that he must wear Kachhehra (A drawer type garment fastened by a fitted string round the waist, very  often worn as an underwear.) and turban. A Sikh woman may or may not tie turban. [section four chapter x.]

Nevertheless, as we quickly found a preponderance of evidence to support the requirement of the dastar for all Sikhs, certainly for Amritdhari Sikhs, and only opinion and the SGPC’s position to maintain the contrary I became more angry and more resigned.  Why should I write about this topic? It seems that no matter how many others have made similar and more developed essays on this issue, there are still widely held prejudices.

It was thus even more surprising that editors added the following statement to the article.
The dastaar is not mandatory to Sikh women, not even for those who are amritdhari, though greater numbers than before have begun to wear one in recent decades. In fact, majority of the amritdhari women today do not wear the dastaar. Moreover, wearing the dastaar does not add in any manner to the woman’s status; it remains a personal choice[ editors]

The statement seems to confirm and support the facts regarding the contemporary appropriation of the turban by women. It is so rare for the editors to include anything in the freelance articles that it is incongruous to see them add something so matter of factly that in actuality is less than half the truth. Although it is perhaps outside of the scope of this discussion, we don’t know how many amritdhari women today wear the dastaar. We don’t even know how many women are amritdhari. To claim that the majority of amrtidhari women do not wear the dastaar is a common assumption, but it is actually unknown. Additionally, whether “kesh” or “keski”, why should we relegate or highlight this “K” to a matter of personal choice any more than the other 4 Ks? The karra is largely accepted so it is uncontroversial. Does this make the karra less of a personal choice and more of a presumed article of faith for all?  Is it only because head coverings are controversial in today’s society that people are scared into polite declarations about personal choice? We are not so fanatical or fundamentalist to believe that someone is not a Sikh if they do not wear all 5Ks all the time and admittedly we are far from that absolute adherence ourselves. Still, we will not downplay the importance of the dastar only to preserve the impression of our open mindedness. I request that we all ask ourselves if our beliefs about the turban are subject to a kind of apology to western ways of thinking. Personally, that figured into my thinking just a few years ago. But I began to question that and I question everything from the SGPC because I believe that the authority on Sikhism is in Gurbani, not in a committee.
The misinterpretation of the five K’s as Kesh rather than Keski and the SGPC re-writing of the original requirements for Amritdhari Sikhs may be subjects of scholarly discussion. However, it is our opinion that invalidating the long and rich history of turban wearing women erodes the authors’ exploration of women’s identities and women’s equality and feel that the editors comments serve to further misdirect readers. The dastaar is no longer mandatory to Sikh women according to the SGPC, but according to writers of Siri Guru Gobind Singh jis time, it was not optional, and women’s equality was asserted in Gurbani (sacred writing) not anecdotally and not by committee.

I think that both and the authors of “Urban Turban” had affirmative intentions and likely only wanted to point out their own open-mindedness, that egalitarianism is a value at the heart of Sikhism, that women have free choice, that we should not judge others by their appearance and that the 5 Ks (required articles of faith) should not be regarded as status symbols, for women or for men. Those are important messages and I agree with them enthusiastically. Let me repeat that, I agree with that enthusiastically. However, the statement about appropriation and the omissions of fact neglect more than 200 years of history, they neglect the original intent of the 5Ks and the fundamental equality of all Khalsa and the essential nature of the turban as one of the 5Ks as written in Gurbani. Those messages and the in vogue image of the “Urban Turban” employ a pop-culture version of empowerment that raises women up through acts of defiance as if acts of observance were not sexy enough. The erroneous messages of appropriation of “men’s” symbols are not clever or urbane; they psychologically undermine the very nature of women’s equality in Sikhism.

What drives me to keep reading, to keep researching, and eventually to keep writing is something larger than the turban issue. There is something deeply at work on the psychology and status of women and it plays out as an ongoing battle over the image of women in society. Currently part of that battle is pitting the western ideology that head coverings are submissive and collusive with oppression against rebellious liberalism where anything goes and the bolder the better. The result is that there is an absence of civil forums to discuss modesty in the public sphere and there is precious little room left to recognize rationality in Eastern practices. Furthermore, there is almost no understanding of the possibility that one can maintain a critical mind and also find strength in the quiet surrender to the powerful god within us. What I hope for is that we can acknowledge the history of Sikhism’s principle tenets which ask all Sikhs to realize our divinity by wearing a turban and keeping our kesh (hair) and at the same time recognize that it is our choice to avail ourselves of that opportunity.

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Quebec Charter and Feminism, Only One or the Other

I take issue with several recent Globe and Mail articles (Sept. 20 and Oct. 2, 2013) calling out a “deep split within feminist ranks” over the proposed Charter of Values in Quebec. In one article the only reference to the split is that “[one member] did concede she had a “very difficult” conversation with Ms. Miville-Dechêne on whether a hijab ban is good for women.” I am all for people having difficult discussions, especially about such important issues as freedom of religion and equal opportunity. However, that does not mean that there is a hidden rift between feminists.

Despite the inflammatory remarks in the comment sections of the articles, I don’t believe that those who support the charter are evil, but they are not feminists either. The Parti Quebecois claims that “imposed secularism, including a ban on highly visible religious symbols, is a way to ensure equality for Quebeckers in the workplace and while obtaining government services.” Quite the opposite, the charter has nothing to do with guarantying equality, unless by equality they mean mandatory homogenization. Rather, it is a governmental control mechanism and power play on multiple levels.

My purpose here is to point out the obvious, that the charter does not promote women’s rights, nor does it reveal a division among feminists. The charter is based upon uninformed and prejudicial understanding of religious articles of faith and rationalizes this as sufficient cause to denigrate and impose ‘protection’ on religious minorities. The charter and many of its vocal supporters are telling women (especially Muslim women) that their very religion is offensive and that their choices around expressing that religion is a form of participating in their own oppression. This kind of posturing is a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance, not feminism. Taking away a woman’s choice is simply patriarchal. Also, we must not automatically deduce that the oppression of women in the Middle East is a valid reason to censure a woman’s choice in Quebec. Nor can we conflate the historical abuses and inequalities of the Catholic church in Quebec with Sikhism, which is founded upon and has greatly demonstrated ideals of equality. To anyone who believes that it is feminist to assume that Quebec women have not made their own choice, I urge you to consider that the assumption is as oppressive and belittling as the removal of choice.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has stated that “a daycare educator wearing a hijab, … “gives a connotation of a gap with respect to the equality of men and women, a kind of submission.” Furthering this notion one commenter on the Globe article made statements that face coverings by definition are demeaning to women and only instituted to control women, and another wrote that head coverings denote slavery and human chattel. Some Globe commenters write that religious clothing is meant to intimidate and flaunt superiority, while many write words like Premier Marois, that the same clothes enforce women’s inferiority, subjugation and submission. Which is it? Instead of supporting women, the current debate about the charter is giving rise to intolerance and xenophobia. Recently numerous Mulsim women across Quebec who wore hijab have been spat upon and verbally and physically attacked.

How does insulting women who wear head coverings promote feminism or secularism?

Once more, the assumptions about face covering and the connection to an appearance of submissiveness and a less secure environment are over stated. When wearing a turban or a hijab most of the face is actually more visible because hair styles such as bangs, feathering etc do not obscure the face. The charter and much of its support reveals an imperialist and xenophobic attitude that western styles of clothing are best and anyone who does not comply with it is abusing the system with requests for “accommodation”.

Even a quick study of the Muslim and Sikh faiths would reveal the sacredness of the turban and other head coverings. The wearing of these articles is part of daily religious practices. When wrapping a turban, prayers are often recited, religious history is remembered and honored, and fundamental sacraments are upheld. They are not removable as a hat or able to be tucked in like a necklace. These articles of faith are a part of the faithful, a defining characteristic of their public and private life. To remove a turban is not like asking someone to change their clothes or hairstyle. Over years or perhaps a lifetime of choosing to wear articles of faith, each time it is a conscious choice and becomes part of one’s identity.

I have chosen Sikhism, not by birth, but as an adult. I have chosen to wear a turban. I feel more equal to a man and more confident wearing a turban than I had ever felt in my life before wearing a turban. I cannot speak for women in the Middle East. Choices and repression, laws and obligations are different in every country. I do know that every woman I know and have ever met that wears a turban has chosen that turban out of love, devotion and many times as a statement of grace and fundamental freedom and privilege to choose how she practices religion. There is not one iota of submission to a man or any council of men or The Man.There is not one ounce of obligation or subjugation or intimidation; it is a statement of personal accountability to our faith and our practice.

In stark contrast, there are layers upon layers of contradictions in the charter’s proposal regarding head coverings. Many Sikh women wear a chuni, a Sikh scarf often worn on the head and also/or over the shoulders, but this is not banned under the proposed charter. Some women wear a chuni for religious reasons, some for cultural reasons.

The charter makes no distinction, but seems to not need to ‘protect’ women from the cultural practice. According to the charter, is a woman who wears a chuni less oppressed?

How would the law determine the difference? I prefer to wear a turban as part of my Sikh religious practice, but Sikh woman who chose to wear a chuni who have more work opportunities available to them because the chuni is not banned under the charter. That’s not equal.  There is no proposed ban on Islamic head coverings for men, so a Muslim man would have more opportunities than most Muslim women. That’s not equal. Politicians would be exempt from the ban. So, the politician could wear any religious article, but the employees in their office could not. That’s not equality, that’s hierarchy. I would like to emphasize to Premier Marois that the only submission or control enforced upon me based on my religion would be the control of the state and the submission to its laws under the proposed charter.

Surely, living in Quebec is a choice, a choice made by many citizen and permanent resident immigrants and many people of faith including those born in Quebec and in other parts of Canada. Many have come to live here specifically for relief from religious and political discrimination in other parts of the world where the government was forcing people towards or away from certain religious practices including the wearing of head scarves, burkas, etc.  In its efforts towards social cohesion, the charter would enforce the same kind of control in Quebec.

Whether a government defines what a person must wear or what a person must not wear, the action is the same; it is the removal of choice.

Further, it implies that some people’s choices are correct, while others are wrong.

Through the charter, the attempt to legislate secularism through restrictions on religious minorities actually risks creating inequalities and repression. In Quebec far more women are wearing head coverings than men. Ask a woman who wears a religious head covering of any kind if she will feel more or less equal to a man when he has to make no sacrifice or compromise to comply with the law but she is asked to choose her religion or her job. Ask anyone who wears obvious religious clothing if they feel safer or more equal if no one in the health center, school, or public services wears any religious clothing? The charter states that religious clothing would also have to be removed to receive public services.

Since it is naïve to suggest that a person could remove and replace their religious clothing anytime they walk through certain buildings, the charter would compel a disappearance of religious minorities from public spaces.

This kind of forced homogenization in the government funded spheres which make up so much of Quebec public life makes me feel less safe, more outcast in all public places, and certainly is an infringement on religious freedom even for those not working in public spheres. Furthermore, the charter will require that the Quebec government change its constitution regarding religious freedom. Isn’t that detrimental to all Quebeckers?

I could go on about the hypocrisy of exceptions for nearly all things Christian, but it is poignant to note that head coverings are no longer a large part of most Christian sects, so the removal of choices and the imposition of ‘protectionism’ and the inequality will predominantly fall upon Sikhs and Muslims and more upon women than men. If the current rhetoric continues it is unlikely that the ban will stop at clothing and necklaces, rather the “otherness” will more likely deepen and the divisions, real divisions between people of faith and the charter supporters will grow. We know this because articles like those in the Globe and Mail are already driving us there, the spitting has already begun and France is also leading the way. The charter of values would do more to guarantee inequality, unequal opportunity and spur on discrimination and hate crime than any imagined benefit of secularism in the public sphere. I do not think any feminist can support those kinds of values.