Friday, April 17, 2009

It ain't easy being Sikh

One of the biggest challenges of any society, particularly a multi-ethnic one, is how to adapt traditional religious values and practices to modern times. Things that once made plenty of sense in their original context now cause problems interfacing with the demands of modern life in a new society.

Lets take the Sikhs, for example, a people originating in India’s Punjab region whose physical appearance and accoutrements frequently make them a misunderstood “other” in the West.

As an example of what I mean by misunderstood, I give you the following conversation I had some years ago with a friend of mine who should really get out more. It was at an Indian take-away joint and the guy serving us was a Sikh.

My friend (whispering) : Hey, what’s wrong with that guy’s head? Is that a bandage?
Me: No, it’s a turban. It’s because he’s a Sikh.
My friend: Oh, he’s sick? What’s wrong with him?


Famous Sikhs: cricketing bad-boy Harbhajan Singh, and actress Parminder Nagra (of ER and Bend it Like Beckham fame. And yes, I really just wanted an excuse to look at that picture of Nagra.)

I wrote a post a while back about the sinister phenomenon of “curry-bashing”, and while a disproportionate number of bashing victims in Melbourne’s west tend to be Indian, a disproportionate number of those seem to be turban-wearing Sikhs. Many Sikh communities in Western countries noted an increase in violence directed at them after 9/11, since to some idiots the Sikhs’ brown skin, turban and beard scream “Islamic terrorism!”

So I figure it takes a certain amount of balls to rock your traditional gear in the face of all that ignorance.

If its one thing that Sikhs have in spades though, its balls. The universal surname for Sikh men, Singh, means “lion”, and they have long been known as fierce soldiers – the British brought many Sikhs to Hong Kong and Malaysia to work as police and guardsmen. (The British army has long employed Sikhs - the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, where 21 Sikhs held off 10,000 Afghans for several hours, is a legendary feat in military history.) On top of that, one of the five articles of faith that baptised Sikhs are required to carry is a ceremonial dagger, called a kirpan (the other four being a steel bracelet, unshorn hair, special undergarments, and a comb.)

All of which would seem like reason enough to leave Sikhs alone, since they sound badass. Ok, maybe not the part about carrying a comb around everywhere, or the special undies, or wearing a bracelet, but the rest of it sounds pretty gangsta. Straight outta Punjab, y’all.

Of course, that’s not really the case. Did you know that Sikhs have the highest rate of home ownership (85%) of any religious community in the UK? Australia’s Sikh community is a particularly peaceful one that has contributed much: a Sikh is far more likely to be your local GP than somebody who would do you harm. A great many Sikhs are vegetarians, and anyone can go to the gurdwara (temple) and be given free food. (And speaking of food, without Punjabis there would be no butter chicken, everyone's favourite curry.) The kirpan, which symbolises the struggle of good over evil, is too blunted to do much damage, and is worn discreetly beneath the clothes next to the body. It is not something to be used offensively. I can personally testify that I dated a Punjabi girl for 3 years and didn't get stabbed, not even once. Her dad may have fantasised about it, but that's another story.

I should mention that the obligation to wear the kirpan and the other stuff is only really for khalsa (baptised) Sikhs. And of Australia's Sikh community (around 30,000 strong), only around 10% are baptised.

Yet as you can imagine, carrying a dagger around everywhere, even a blunt one, raises a few obvious issues.
6 British Sikhs were refused entry to a Staffordshire theme park last week because they were carrying kirpans. They do have a legal right in Britain to carry them however, even into courtrooms. The laws vary from country to country about the kirpan. In Denmark it is illegal to carry any weapon in public without a valid reason (religion not deemed a valid reason). In India it is even legal for khalsa Sikhs to carry the kirpan on planes.

There have been ongoing legal wrangles in Canada and the US about the rights of Sikh students to carry kirpans to school. In Australia, the Victorian Education and Training Committee recommended to parliament that the kirpan be accommodated in schools. Unsurprisingly, teachers and principals were outraged. Interestingly, the Sikh Council of Australia advised that students should not be allowed to take kirpans to school.

But Sikhs have faced problems with more than just the kirpan. Recently in Virginia a restaurant refused some Sikhs entry because they had a no-headwear policy, and the Sikhs refused to remove their turbans. In Brisbane over a year ago, a Sikh student was not allowed to enrol at the private school Ormiston College because his turban contravened uniform policy.

Now there are legitimate questions raised here, but some bullsh*t going on as well. I'm all for religious freedoms as long as it doesn't endanger anyone and common sense is the overriding factor. And I can't imagine any reason why a Sikh's turban would cause such a problem that it should be disallowed. It's against your dress policy? F*** your dress policy, go write a new one. While there has been similar debate about how Muslim hijab fits in with school uniforms, the Sikh turban is far less problematic, since it covers only the top of the head - it should not even be an issue.

The kirpan, however, is a different matter. Carrying it around beneath one's clothes when walking the streets is one thing (half our teenagers seem to carry knives around these days anyway). But taking it to school is another. Likewise, nightclubs and venues should have the right to refuse entry to anyone carrying a kirpan. Not to imply that Sikhs are gonna start knifing people, but the risk is too great. These are just some of the sacrifices necessary to make multiculturalism work. Which is easy for me to say, since my religion doesn't require me to carry a whole bunch of stuff around with me at all times. But I wonder, is spirituality really about the outward symbols of religion - church attendance, and wearing a yarmulke, kirpan or hijab - or is it about what's in the heart and mind? In a world that's constantly changing and evolving, that's a question that I think we all need to be pondering.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Would be nice if the common sense got knocked into a few more people around the world.