Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
Sikhs in America have faced a long history of suspicion and discrimination, even before 9/11, after which they became the targets of hate crimes and increased Islamophobia.
While Sikhism is considered one of the world’s major religions, nearly 60% of Americans admit not knowing about it. Similarly, Islam is the second largest religion in the world and, while Muslims have lived in the U.S. for centuries, about 45% of Americans consider Islam to be incompatible with democracy.
In post-9/11 America, both Sikhs and Muslims have a lot in common. They face racism and xenophobia, fueled by ignorance about their religions.
“The identity that we wear isn’t associated with any sort of fundamentalism or terrorism,” says Kavneet Singh, a board member of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “[It] is in fact associated with our reverence, love, and appreciation for the Almighty.”
Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in Punjab, a region in modern-day India and Pakistan. In 1699, Sikhs were commanded to not cut their hair, because it alters the way God created humans. Uncut hair is one of five articles of faith for Sikhs.
Equality is at the heart of Sikhism. In fact, the turban was worn by India’s wealthy, and Sikhism’s founding spiritual leader commanded his followers to wear it as a sign of devotion and as way to break down India’s caste system.
Sikh men and women traditionally cover their heads. It’s the turban that arguably makes Sikhs, particularly Sikh men, stand out the most and the target of violence. But for women, the struggle to keep their hair covered is as real as the struggle for a Muslim woman like myself to keep my head scarf on.
Similarly to Sikhs, my hijab is a symbol of my faith and identity, which I feel the need to remind myself of on a near-daily basis. Doing so helps me remember that it’s my right to practice my religion freely, even when it’s a struggle in a time of increased hate and Islamophobia. I never realized that Sikh women, like Ravnit Palah, a member of the Sikh Center of San Francisco Bay Area, share a similar sentiment.
“I have the right to practice my religion. I have this freedom to practice whatever religion I would want,” said Palah. “And oftentimes, I do find myself—oh, I should uncover my head, or take down my dupatta—but then I’m like no that’s who I am, that’s my identity.”
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