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Finding Sikh Spaces for Social Change

The Fox International Fellowship organized a panel session on its screening of Under the Turban, a documentary about Sikhs living in various diasporas worldwide. The panel consisted of the documentary team; Inderpal Grewal, Professor of Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies (Yale University); Harjant S. Gill, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Sociology and Criminal Justice (Towson University); and, Sasha Sabherwal, PhD student in American Studies (Yale University). Satveer Kaur- Gill, a Fox Fellow from the National University of Singapore, moderated the panel.

The screening aimed to generate awareness of the minority community, cultural perspectives regarding Sikh identity, and the processes of migration and assimilation across the various diasporas. Under the Turban explores what it means to be Sikh in Punjab, India, and across multiple diasporas, including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Italy, Argentina, and Canada. The physical markers of specific religious identities, such as the turban and the hijab, have become ways to discriminate and enact violence against minority communities in many of these countries; post-9/11, Sikh identity markers, such as the turban and the beard, which are commonly worn by male Sikhs, are often misunderstood as the marks of a terrorist figure.

The panel addressed some of the contentions of wearing these physical markers when migrating, such as young Sikh men negotiating their bodies. Part of this negotiation is in cutting their hair and removing the turban as soon as they leave their country of origin. Professor Gill, who researches this process, pushed the audience to consider how these identities are described and narrated, as opposed to enacted. The process of becoming a transnational migrant from Punjab often begins with the body, reifying how these physical identity markers and the body are constantly in contention with one other. The meanings and symbols of the turban are constantly shifting for these male migrants.

Similarly, Professor Grewal discussed the temporality of Sikh identity. She asked the audience to consider the ways in which Sikh identity is constructed, what it is to be a Sikh, how to dress to look like a Sikh, and how a Sikh comes to be constantly reimagined. The majority Sikh identity today is often represented by a specific privileged caste community, the Jat caste (farm-owning) Sikhs, who are depicted in the film. The film leaves out many other sects of Sikhs, including the caste of Sikhs that are often missing from dominant Sikh narratives, the Dalit caste Sikhs, who are marked by untouchability. Such absences in both the film and in dominant narratives of Sikh representations depict a present-day homogenizing religion with a focus on an egalitarian ethos. Religious scholars often reinforce this rhetoric as the timeless essence of Sikh values, a reading that is juxtaposed to the historical, economic, geographical, political, and social perspectives that shape the ways in which various Sikh communities worldwide come to be. Such rhetoric silences the caste and class struggles of minority Sikhs, devaluing their lived experiences. The untouchable community of Sikhs unable to achieve social mobility because of caste politics, despite taking the Sikh identity, may not identify with the egalitarian principles of Sikhism that the film reflects.

Continuing her discussion, Professor Grewal reminds the audience that the writing of Sikh history is very much the writing of the male history of the religion and its practices. As in the documentary, the figures and characters that are constantly and eminently depicted are those of the turbaned male. The representations of Sikh men in a motorcycle club in Canada, the Singh Street Style boys that are Sikh fashionistas, and Sikh men in various military clothing are dominant subjects in the film. These visual narratives come into direct tension with Professor Nikky Guninder’s (the religious scholar in the film, and the Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the department at Colby College, Waterville, Maine) reading of the Sikh precepts as egalitarian and feminist in their original intent and agenda. Masculine storied representations often silence intersectional readings of the Sikh identity, erasing narratives pertaining to the critical gender gaps plaguing Sikhs today. For example, compared to other Indian societies, the gender ratio due to female foeticide is significantly imbalanced in Punjab. Violence against women, especially women from lower castes and social classes, often goes unreported. In a most recent example, a pregnant Sikh woman in Bathinda, Punjab, was shot in front of guests at a wedding for not entertaining the advances of several young men as she performed. This woman was a socio-economically poor dancer, marked as inferior in the echelons of the society in which she belonged, her body perceived as “discardable” enough to be shot and dragged on camera. This single narrative of violence is constantly reproduced in similar stories of Sikh women, typifying a large, interconnected problem that is marked by the social conditions of gender inequality in the community.  

Written by Satveer Kaur-Gill, 2016-17 Fox International Fellow from the National University of Singapore.