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 sikhchic.com and other websites. The article was well written, a sincere effort, and we are generally impressed with the high quality of articles on sikhchic.com. 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
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 sikhchic.com 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. [ sikhchic.com 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 sikhchic.com 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.