When I was fifteen, I attended my first (and only) IIGS camp (International Institute of Gurmat Studies). I packed my bags, excited to head up to Arrowhead for a week to spend time with all of my childhood family friends. I was the only one among us who had cut hair. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, because none of my parents’ dominantly Sikh social circle (who, for the most part, all have kept their hair) had ever made my family or me feel out of place for not keeping our hair uncut.
The first morning at the campsite, the head of camp requested that we all meet in the camp’s courtyard. We were to show up with our hair let down in it’s natural state. I got dressed that morning and headed down into the courtyard. Upon arrival, I felt the most awkward I’ve ever felt for having cut hair. Most of the girls and boys had thick, beautiful hair down to their ankles. A select few of us had cut hair.
Most of the children at camp were from far more religious backgrounds than me. Yes, I’d grown up going to the Sikh temple occasionally for momentous occasions and attending a Punjabi school every other Sunday where I learned to read and write my heritage’s language. But I still felt judged. I still felt out of place. I still felt as if I’d committed a cardinal sin by cutting my hair.
I still felt as if I’d committed a cardinal sin by cutting my hair.
I left camp, eventually forgetting altogether how inferior that morning in the campsite’s courtyard made me feel. I went on with my life, probably visiting the hair salon for a cut at least fifty times in the last eleven years. I go to the Sikh temple for special occasions and religious events. I don’t wear a kara, and I can’t recite the Gurbani to you by heart. I didn’t give any of these things a second thought until I entered adulthood.
I moved to New York City two and a half years ago. Being born and raised in southern California, I wasn’t personally affected by 9/11 the way so many of my acquaintances who have grown up in the tri-State area unfortunately were. I remember the Sikh community got slaughtered in the aftermath of the attack because our men wear turbans. Sikh taxi drivers were killed, Sikh men were held up disrespectfully in airport security lines and Sikh temples were threatened.
I started to socialize with a lot of Sikhs my own age when I moved here. Some have cut hair like me, but the majority has kept their hair. All of my friends with turbans and long hair are working professionals or students in highly ranked graduate programs. It wasn’t until I started socializing with a Sikh crowd here in New York that I felt that same feeling of inferiority that I felt eleven years ago in that campsite courtyard.
As Sikhs, we’re taught to practice equality.
Sikhism preaches many underlying values. As Sikhs, we’re taught to practice equality. We’re taught that salvation is achieved by good deeds and remembrance of God. We’re taught that there is only one God. We’re taught to be good people. With all of the positive influence that the religion’s teachings have on its followers, I cant help but be infuriated that the orthodox population of Sikhs believe that I, as well as the others with cut hair, are not “as fit Sikhs” because we’ve chosen not to keep our hair.
I have the utmost respect for my Sikh friends and family who have kept their hair, yet I can’t help but wonder why the orthodox generation within the Sikh community still shuns those of us who haven’t for our decision.
Do bi-monthly visits to the salon make me less passionate about my faith? Does the fact that I chose to cut my hair mean that I don’t understand what it must be like for the Sikh men who have faced hardships due to keeping theirs? Does the fact that I don’t wear a steel kara mean that I don’t understand the teachings of the Gurus? Does choosing practicality over passion make me an unfit human?
Today there are more Sikh youths that don’t have their long hair than there are those that do.
Today there are more Sikh youths that don’t have their long hair than there are those that do. That doesn’t make Sikhism a dying religion, nor does it make Sikhism a faith filled with hypocrites for followers. Religion is a sensitive subject in this now unsafe world — which makes me have all the more respect for my peers who have chosen to keep their hair. But at the end of the day, especially in this day and age, God is God and people will always have different opinions as to what defines a fit religious follower.
It’s been eleven years since that morning in the campsite. I’ve walked into countless Sikh temples, and have had countless of the orthodox elderly Sikh generation judge me for my cut, layered hair. I’m an educated, independent, female professional living, working and succeeding in the largest metropolitan city in North America. It’s time for me to stop allowing orthodox views to make me feel inferior, in a world that should be striving to unite in the face of daily destruction and judgment all around us.
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Seerat Bhatia was born and raised in southern California, and she now lives and works in New York City. She writes about South Asian culture in the West. Follow her at @seeratbhatia90.