I realize I am late in responding to the hubbub surrounding the courageous and graceful Balpreet Kaur. Throughout the flurry of social media activity surrounding this story in late September, I was silent.
Yet the story has remained on my mind all this time, and I now realize exactly why it has taken me this long to contribute to the discussion: the story of Balpreet Kaur pressed a lot of my personal buttons, and forced me to examine some uncomfortable facts surrounding my own identity as a Sikh.
In late September, a Reddit user with the username “european_douchebag” uploaded a photo of Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman and Ohio State student who wears the turban and does not trim her facial hair in accordance with Sikh beliefs. The Reddit user posted the photo under the site’s humor feed, with a caption along the lines of, “I’m not sure what to make of this.”
Afterward, Balpreet showed remarkable restraint, grace and inner beauty in her response: “When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away,” She continued, “However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can.”
Many in the social media community applauded Balpreet Kaur afterward, and the Reddit user even sent a long, heartfelt apology.
Let’s back up for a moment. My name is Guruamrit Khalsa, and I am an American Sikh. My parents are ethnically Jewish, but converted to the Indian religion of Sikhism before I was born, under the aegis of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh man who brought Sikh teachings to the West during the counterculture movement in the 1970s.
The American Sikh community in the United States is very small, and often misunderstood. Growing up, I lived in a community of American Sikhs in Northern Virginia. This time in my life, from childhood through my early teens, remains the pinnacle of my connection with God and personal spirituality. If I am going to be honest with myself, I have drifted further and further away from my Sikh practices over the years.
Growing up, my family and I rigorously practiced the tenets of Sikhism. We went to the Sikh meditation and yoga session almost every morning. We attended service on Sundays at the Sikh temple. I attended a Sikh boarding school in Amritsar, India for three years – from the ages of 11-14.
During this time in my life, I not only practiced Sikhism, but I looked like a Sikh. The Sikh appearance is an important part of the faith, and is one of the most distinctive aspects of the faith to outsiders. Instructions on Sikh appearance were handed down by the final Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The reasoning behind the Sikh appearance is three-fold: to instill personal disciple in Sikhs; to identify Sikhs to the outside world, and to decrease pride in one’s appearance.
One of the five requirements of appearance is to maintain uncut hair, or “kesh.” Sikhs are supposed to cover uncut hair with a turban. Uncut hair includes body hair, and Sikhs are not supposed to shave either.
Up until the age of about 14, I held fast to this tenet of Sikhism. My hair remained uncut, and was so long it reached the top of my thighs; my legs and armpits remained unshaven. I would often wear a turban. Emotionally, two feelings pervade my memories of this time: a sense of deep spiritual well-being and feeling of closeness with the Lord and a deep and almost frightening sense of isolation from my peers.
When I entered high school, I cracked: I had my hair cut and highlighted, and began shaving. I truly did not feel I had any shot of fitting in during school hours, let alone making any friends, if I maintained the Sikh appearance. I remember walking down the halls of my Catholic high school, watching the boys in their polo shirts and crew cuts and the girls with long, glossy hair, Tiffany necklaces, and perfect makeup and thinking: I can’t do this.
Especially as a Caucasian female, it just seemed to strike too many people as too strange. On the social side, high school for girls is all about things like make-up, attracting boys’ attention and going to the prom. I know that sounds perhaps cliched, shallow, and simplistic, but that was my experience.
At the time I told myself that even though I didn’t look like a Sikh anymore, I would continue to practice the tenets of Sikhism privately: I promised myself I would continue attending gurdwara regularly, that I would continue to do yoga and meditation each day.
The truth was, it was a slippery slope. Looking the part of a regular American teen soon led to me acting the part of a regular American teen. Prom and school dances in high school led to frat parties and house parties in college, and to nightclubs and bars now, during my early twenties. My practice slowly fell off, from several times a week, to once a week, to several times a year.
However, I still consider myself a Sikh in my heart, and maintain my faith in small ways, by continuing to wear the kara (a bangle, also stipulated in guidelines on Sikh appearance) and by remaining passionate about community service projects, another tenet of Sikhism. I attend gurdwara and Kundalini yoga classes once in a while.
These small elements of practice feel watered-down, tenuous, and overall less than satisfactory. Yet I cannot seem to reach the high level of purity and Sikh practice I attained in the first half of my life.
Part of me, perhaps irrationally, can’t help but feel that all of this would be easier if I was ethnically Indian. In my mind’s eye, I see myself as leading a simple life as a Sikh, unencumbered by all of these nagging doubts about my identity. Others would not be befuddled by my commitment to Sikhism; when they looked at me, they would not be shocked, they would simply see an Indian Sikh living in the US.
My graduate coursework includes a regional concentration in South Asian studies. The more I study the history of the region, and learn about the rich history of the Sikhs in north India and Pakistan, the more ridiculous I feel: who do I think I am, calling myself a Sikh? I feel foolish, like an outsider hanging on the wings of a club I will never be a part of. Where on earth do I fit in in all of this? What does it mean to be an “American Sikh,” and how do you live in a Western country such as the US without feeling completely isolated? Who are my people?
Balpreet Kaur pushed my buttons because she succeeded where I failed: she managed to maintain her commitment to the Sikh appearance, despite misunderstanding on the part of outsiders and had the courage to look different in the United States. I compromised on my commitment to the most important thing, God himself, in order to “fit in.”
I can only hope that at some point in my life I will have the personal strength and courage to emulate Balpreet Kaur’s graceful example.
Image by unbuttonedcoat, via Flickr Creative Commons.