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India: The turban both a symbol of identity & a ‘visual shield’ for women PDF Print E-mail

Tuesday 14 January 2014
Being Kaur in unsafe city

For the unsafe urban space, the turban offers a visual shield to women. The dastaar or turban is a symbol that one generally associates with men. Increasingly, it is being worn by the urban Sikh women. It redefines beauty, femininity and spirituality in a cosmopolitan setting
By Neha Abraham and Rhea John

Urban spaces are becoming a melting pot of cultural identities. With the same vigour, ethnic identities are claiming their roots to maintain a distinct character. Within this new assertion of identity sometimes a new element is added­of gender equality.

Post 9/11 while American Sikhs were grappling with the idea of their distinct identity (not to be confused with the beard of the Muslim), the Sikh women, or Kaurs began a fresh assertion of their identity. It began with a blog based survey “What does a Kaur look like?” The search began because the Kaur identity is not as solidified as that of a Singh, with a turban and beard.

The answer was found in the distinct look of the traditional Amritdhari women, who appropriate dastaar or turban in order to assert themselves as equals in the Khalsa. The survey concluded three major reasons why the identity of Amritdhari woman is found to be attractive to the modern urban Kaur.

One, religion is often assumed to be patriarchal. Therefore Kaurs are using religious idiom to assert themselves as equals in the Khalsa, as was done by women in rural Punjab for centuries, by choosing to wear large prominent dastaars, rather than covering their head with a chunni. Two, the significance of the dastaar is far more religious than sartorial. And, the concern for safety in a city may not be one of the reasons for choosing to become Amritdhari and wearing the five symbols, particularly the kirpan. But the experience of the city certainly plays an important role in continuing with the decision.

An artist’s impression of Mata Bhag Kaur, a female warrior in Guru Gobind Singh’s army

Seen as orthodox
Amritdhari Sikhs believe that the five ‘kakkas’; kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (comb), kara (steel bangle), kachhehra (knee breeches) and kirpan (dagger), symbols of Sikh identity given by the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, are an essential part of the prescribed ‘uniform’ and must be worn at all times. For most non-Sikhs, the dastaar or turban is a symbol generally associated with men.

“If men cover their heads, so do women. If men wear dastaars, so do women. I can’t imagine Guru Gobind Singh demanding any less of his daughters than his sons”, said one of the respondents to the question, “What triggered you to wear the dastaar?’

Having said this, these Kaurs do recognise that being ‘visibly religious’ is perceived, even by many non- Amritdhari Sikhs, as being ‘orthodox’, ‘fanatical’ or ‘kattar’. They consciously deny these associations, using the religious idiom itself to assert their equal status in the Khalsa.

Historical inspiration
While it is uncertain who the first turbaned woman was in the Khalsa, all of these women draw inspiration from ‘Mai Bhago’ or Mata Bhag Kaur, a female warrior in Guru Gobind Singh’s army, some say she was the first female bodyguard. Her example is often used to highlight gender equality as being one of the foundational principles of the Khalsa.

By placing the wearing of the dumalla within a politico-historical context these women affirm credibility to this practice. “The Mughals forbade anyone except the royals from wearing turbans, riding horses, carrying weapons or keeping eagles. This was precisely why these were the symbols the Sikhs chose to adopt,” said Sarabjeet Kaur who has an insurance and tax services business and also runs a school to impart religious instruction among children, in California. Dr. Harpreet, an anaesthetist, points out that in defiance, they wore not just one, but two turbans! She also explains the prohibition on piercing because the Mughals would pierce the nose of the Sikh women they captured, symbolising their ‘slave status.”We are not slaves to anyone and women are not the slaves of men”, she asserts.

These women also have unique ways of explaining personal philosophies that govern their religious practices which is reflective of individual volition. Siri, a management consultant who has been Amritdhari for eleven years says, “The idea is not to become fanatic about the religion. I am more spiritual. My work is my first Karma, and for me it is most important. I have to travel a lot, so I go to Bangla Sahib whenever I’m at home.”

The science
While speaking of the turban and kesh, Harroop Kaur, a nursing student in California, draws from her knowledge of science to explain her view, “ When we comb our hair there is static - that electricity, that energy - the simran and paath channels it through the hair, and the dastaar protects it. The dastaar then works as a huge storehouse of energy. So the dastaar is a lot more than just identity ­ it has a function.”

One may or may not agree with the logic of it, some women also spoke about how it was important not to judge others and that the significance of certain practices could only be understood when one had achieved a certain level of spiritual maturity. Leading an Amritdhari life is actually a matter of kripa (grace), and people can’t be judged for not taking it up, said twins Luvleen and Gurleen Kaur, both students at DU, pursuing M. Sc. degree. Dr. Harpreet however had a very different take on the subject, “After a while you realise that there is no point in discussing these things with people who don’t understand. Jisne kheer khai hi na ho toh use kya pata ki kheer kaisi hoti hai-ki usme cheeni hai ya mirchi?”(The proof of the pudding is in the eating.)

The older women seemed to have built up more resilience to the pressures of conformity which are ubiquitous in an urban setting. “I don’t think it is anyone’s business to comment on other people’s faith or their looks”, says Dr Harpreet. Young women wearing the dastaar on the contrary are constantly required to defend their choices to family and friends. Shobha Kaur, a professor at DU, says, when she took to wearing the dastaar her friends rued her lost beauty. Despite coming fromAmritdhari families, many girls are discouraged from taking up the dastaar as it would affect their social lives, particularly their marriage prospects. To this Luvleen and Gurleen say, laughing, ‘We told them, bandhne se nahin milega toh nahin bandhne se bhi nahin milega!” Marriage is either destined or it isn’t.

The pressures of beauty extend beyond keeping the hair on the head unshorn. In a recent incident, Balpreet Kaur from the US replied to malicious comments about her facial hair on the popular content-sharing website, Reddit, saying ‘When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. 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. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.’

When asked about their own appearance, the young women attribute their beauty to the natural form that the Guru gave them and to bearing his ‘crown’, the dastaar. Damanjeet Kaur, an ex-model who is now a practising Amritdhari woman said, “The dastaar is like our crown and our Guru wanted us to look beautiful wearing it.” While they reject hair removal entirely, and for the most part makeup as well, the girls take pains with their dastaars, tying them in different styles, with different cloths, and even decorating them. “I have heard that there are four prescribed colours, but if boys can match, why can’t we?” says Jalnidh Kaur, who is doing an M.Phil in Economics at Oxford University. However, the significance of the dastaar is far more religious than sartorial, whether as a storehouse of spiritual energy, as a constant reminder of the Guru’s presence in their life or as a form of seva, inspiring others to take on the dastaar. One does not ‘wear’ a dastaar, one adorns oneself with it.

The unsafe city
The turban isn’t just a symbol of identity, according to Shobha Kaur. Together with the kirpan, it also acts as a ‘visual shield’ in a city like Delhi, generally considered unsafe for women. Harroop says, “The kirpan is a last resort, but one should make sure that it is actually sharpened. Look at my kirpan, it’s not a puny three inch thing. I don’t just have it for show. I sharpen it regularly and I can use it!” She also believes that learning Gatka, the Sikh martial art, empowers women. “Even at my Gatka class there are very few girls. A lot of them assume that not much is expected of them. I tell them you will not have it easy, I’m going to be just as hard on you as I am on the guys.” She instructs girls in Gatka.

These practices provide a sense of safety and security to these women, also giving them the confidence and strength to help others, and thereby to do seva, an essential principle of the Khalsa. Gursimran, who rides a ‘scooty’ to college as she is not allowed to travel on the Metro with her kirpan, recounted an incident where she helped a woman chase a thief. She then went with her late at night to register the police complaint. As Damanjeet puts it, “People ask ‘don’t you feel scared, going out by yourself at night’? I tell them, “I didn’t wear the kirpan to be scared!” The dastaar seems to act in a similar way in the lives of these women; it suggests strength and courage.

Becoming an Amritdhari involves not just adopting the symbols of Sikhism but also internalising the philosophy behind them. The symbols are important reminders of responsibilities not just towards fellow believers but to all human beings. The Kaurs consider themselves to be better equipped to handle the challenges posed by an urban space, both by wearing the symbols as well as internalising the philosophy.

The article is based on a research conducted by a group of students of the Delhi School of Economics. (With inputs from Pawanjeet Singh Judge, Arif Hayat, Sophia Abbas, and Karandeep Mehra.)

Urban turban
Close to 250 people participate in the Amrit Sanchar ceremony every week at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.
Of these about 30-40 per cent are women, says the head Granthi. More and more urban, young Amritdhari women are choosing to wear large, prominent dastaars.
Cosmopolitan Kaurs are using religious idiom to assert themselves as equals in the Khalsa by wearing the religious symbols traditionally worn by the men.

Everyone is donning the turban from models in Gap ads, John Paul Gaultier and Nikhil & Shantanu’s collection to actors in Hollywood and Bollywood. For me, it is an expression of my faith just like the Sikh men do. I practice my equal right as a Sikh woman and enjoy the perks of being noticeable, fashionable, colourful and confident every morning when I step out of the house.
­Harpreet Kaur, filmmaker