Some Sikh Youth Confront Dilemma In Wearing Turban

July 14, 2009

Author: Jessica Scott

Source: The Columbia Journalist

Sonu Singh and his best friend Manjinder Singh hang out almost daily, walking around their Richmond Hill neighborhood and listening to hip-hop music. They aren’t related, but the two boys have many things in common besides a surname. Both were born in India and graduated from Queens high schools this summer; both are preoccupied with girls and video games. Dressed in black T-shirts and wearing the latest Nike sneakers, the two friends even look similar standing beneath the elevated J train platform on Jamaica Avenue.

But there is one glaring difference. Sonu’s dark hair is closely cropped, while Manjinder’s would fall past his shoulder, if it weren’t for the turban wrapped tightly around his head. And in Richmond Hill, surprisingly it is Sonu, not Manjinder, who is labeled an outcast, and the 18-year-old is acutely aware of this fact.

The friends both follow the Sikh religion, a faith with more than 21 million followers, making it the fifth-largest religion worldwide. Adherents are forbidden to cut any hair on their bodies. Instead, the men wrap it inside a patka, or turban, and secure it in a knot on the top of their heads. This is a visible tribute to their maker, an outward symbol of the perfection of God’s creation. It also makes them easily recognizable as Sikhs, and, to some Sikh youth, that visibility is precisely the problem.

“I’m certain I will grow my hair out and wear a turban,” Sonu said. “But not now – maybe when I’m old, like 30.”

Sonu and Manjinder embody a larger tension within the Sikh community – the internal dilemma among children to remain true to their faith while still fitting in with their peers. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some Sikhs simply do not want to stand out. Incidents of harassment and discrimination towards Sikhs students have increased dramatically since then, as they are frequently mistaken for Arabs, Iranians or Afghans because of their turbans. The problem extends beyond Richmond Hill, a place with the largest concentration of Sikhs in New York, with reports coming from all corners of the United States and in other countries around the globe.