Why do Sikhs wear Turbans?
Gurprit K. Randhawa
Since the time of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, the turban has been a key, distinguishing article of a Sikh’s identity and faith. The turban holds significant historical, social, and spiritual significance for Sikhs.
During the birth and development of the Sikh faith from the 15th to 18th centuries, the turban was only worn by higher classes and nobility in South Asia (Chaudhary, 2017). Given that social equality is a core teaching of Sikhi, all initiated Sikhs wore the turban to signify equal status among Sikhs. The principle of gender equality between Sikh men and women also empowers women to tie turbans (Khalsa, 2016). In South Asian history, Sikhs are well known for selflessly fighting against injustice and tyranny to protect the human rights of others regardless of religion, race, caste, gender, etc. The turban served as a way for anyone to easily identify a Sikh in a crowd should they need any help or protection.
Unshorn hair is another distinguishing article of faith for initiated Sikhs, representing holiness, spiritual strength, humility, and respect for God (World Sikh Organization, 2020). To this end, the Sikh turban protects and covers the sacred unshorn hair. A Sikh’s hair is coiled up on top of the head in a bun on top of an important spiritual centre known as the Dasam Duar or Tenth Gate (i.e., 7th Chakra) (Khalsa, 2016). Thus, the turban is an integral component of Sikh identity and a core article of faith (Sikh Coalition, 2020).
Unlike a hat, a turban is carefully tied daily, and is worn at all times by observant Sikhs. There are several styles, sizes, and colours of turban for children and adults based on personal preference. For practicing Sikhs, the humiliation of being without a turban or forced to remove it is similar to being undressed publically (World Sikh Organization, 2020). Hence, the police forces in Canada and Canadian Border Security Agency consider removal of a turban to be equivalent to a strip search (World Sikh Organization, 2020). Sikh air travellers also have several rights when clearing security at United States airports, such as the right to: (1) wear their turban during security screenings, (2) pat down their own turban and have their hands swabbed for chemical residue in the event that additional screening is required, (3) refuse removal of their turban in public, (4) the right to ask for a private area during any point of screening, and (5) not to be racially profiled by Transportation Security Officers on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion or national origin (Sikh Coalition, n.d.).
Why do I wear the Turban?
While I tie the turban for all of the aforementioned reasons, my choice to wear a turban and what it means to me is rooted in my own journey and self-development as a Sikh. When I was little, I did not tie a turban or cover my hair. When I was about six or seven, I was inspired to start wearing a scarf at home as I learned more about my identity as a Sikh and wanted to respect God by covering my head. When I was 10, my family moved to a new house in a different city and that meant going to a new school. It was then that I decided that I was going to start wearing a bandana both inside and outside the home, including at school. I also made the decision to teach my new classmates how to properly pronounce my name. From there, I truly embraced a new identity as a young Sikh girl growing up in the melting pot of the United States. Sometimes, people would mistakenly presume I was Muslim due to my bandana. While I have zero tolerance for Islamophobia, it did not sit well with me that people did not know I was actually a Sikh. This incorrect labeling deeply affected my identity and confidence as I was growing up as a pre-teen and teen, especially post 9/11.
For years, I had been contemplating the decision to start tying a turban to fully embrace my identity and spirituality as a Sikh. At the same time, I had started connecting more and more with my spirituality through meditation, recitation of Gurbani (holy Sikh scriptures/hymns), Gurbani Kirtan (singing of Sikh hymns), and learning about Sikh history. For me, it became extremely important to honor my Tenth Gate and truly establish my full identity as a Sikh. Slowly, I started tying the turban at home and in public. When I was 23, I took a leap of faith and started tying the turban all the time. With the grace of the Almighty, I have been tying the turban since then. The decision to tie a turban was truly transformational for my identity and sense of self, as I immediately started noticing that people around me increasingly recognized me as a Sikh. The turban physically and symbolically became my crown, and signified the true meaning of my middle name – Kaur. The middle name Kaur is given to every Sikh female and means “princess”. With my turban, I truly became a Sikh princess.
For some people, trendy fashion and hairstyles are ways to truly stand out in a crowd and make a statement or be noticed. Unknowingly, my turban became the key part of my identity that helped me stand out by personal choice; this choice elevated my self-efficacy as a young, female visible minority. With my turban, it became extremely easy for people to recognize me in a crowd. For me, this connects me back to the cultural significance of the turban – The ability to identify Sikhs should one need any help or support.
Every day, my confidence and pride as a turbaned Sikh continues to grow without bounds. Today, people I have not met before actually come up to me thinking that we have met before (likely because they had met another turbaned Sikh woman). When I tie my turban, I know I am not representing just myself or my family, but the entire global Sikh community. It is a responsibility I do not take lightly in how I conduct myself. However, I carry this responsibility with great pride and integrity, as crowns are meant to be heavy!
Chaudhary, V. (2017). Why do Sikhs wear turbans? You asked Google – here’s the answer. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/13/why-do-sikhs-wear-turbans-google-answer
Khalsa, S. (2016). Why do Sikhs wear turbans? Retrieved from https://www.sikhdharma.org/why-do-sikhs-wear-turbans/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAuJb_BRDJARIsAKkycUk_6zLL8yjGt5rNkyAAnfLdxnH0RNgeVL0EPYjiS8xEQbvBBMX1tJcaAqVfEALw_wcB
Sikh Coalition. (2020). FAQ. Retrieved from https://www.sikhcoalition.org/about-sikhs/faq/
Sikh Coalition. (n.d.). Airport Screening Procedures for Sikh Travelers. Retrieved from http://www.sikhcoalition.org/documents/pdf/SikhAirTravelersGuideandBillofRights.pdf
World Sikh Organization. (2020). Sikh Faith FAQs. Retrieved from https://www.worldsikh.org/sikh_faith