The Sikh Identity Embodied by Women

As a Sikh woman, I am deeply aware of the images of the tragedy that has occurred in Wisconsin: a turbaned gentleman wiping a tear from his eyes, a group of women consoling each other and two unexpected young children being heralded as heroes. As we collectively process what has happened, ideals of forgiveness and compassion are on everyone's lips, including those that have lost loved ones in the massacre.

The image of the turban and the beard are finally receiving recognition, not as symbols of violence and terror, but as emblems of peace, justice and love. We also recognize the valor of defenders such as Lt. Brian Murphy, and we celebrate the lives of five Sikh men -- Prakash Singh, Satwant Singh, Sita Singh, Suveg Singh and Ranjit Singh -- and one Sikh woman, Parmjit Kaur. While Americans are meeting Sikh men, perhaps for the first time, here, we introduce them to Sikh women.

A significant discussion permeating the media is regarding the Sikh identity and what this identity means in a post 9/11 context. The turban is a manifestation of sovereignty; it is a gift from our Guru and a declaration that Sikhs will stand up against oppression, whether directed against our own community or others. This unyielding dedication to freedom has exhibited itself in many ways. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Sikhs joined the United States Army to fight against tyranny and injustice; Sikhs have consistently been the voice admonishing violence against women in South Asian communities, and they have served as the backbone for the movement against social inequalities in India.

The American public has started to learn about the significance of the turban and uncut hair to both Sikh women and men. Though Sikh women connect to the male identity on a very personal level through their husbands, fathers and sons, they are not exclusively defined by the image of the turban and the beard. Uncut hair is as much an article of faith for Sikh women as it is for Sikh men. Sikh women are defined in their own right, whether they are wearing turbans, chunis, buns or braids. Women embody this identity, and they participate in it.

We know from a recent Sikh Coalition study (link) in California that 69 percent of turban-wearing Sikh students have suffered bullying, and that 30 percent of them have been physically harassed. Yet, looking at a young Sikh girl, you might not suspect that she has also been bullied about her uncut hair; you may not know that she is also intimately tied to this Sikh-American struggle. In fact, women proudly carry the responsibility of defining and defending the identity. Consider the Sikh mother who visits her son's preschool class to share and demystify what is beneath the turban, who drives to school to re-tie her young child's turban when it has been torn off by bullies, and who consoles her son when he is banned from playing along his friends in uniformed sports. Sikh women are heavily invested in this Sikh identity.

Sikh women, some with their turbans, some with their long hair in buns and braids, are perhaps less identifiable in this struggle against hate. But standing alongside their community, they have been equally impacted by the violence. These women are an integral component of the fabric that ties the community to the image of the turban and the freedom that this identity represents. These women stand in solidarity with their brothers, fathers, husbands and sons. Parmjit Kaur's life is a testament to this unification, this unshakable bond.