New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel

Sikh Community

Sikh Community

By: Neha Mehta

The Indian community within NYC has continues to experience discrimination on the basis of both skin-color and the practice of certain cultural traditions. However, no distinct ethnic group has confronted and struggled to fight such a flagrant level of racial adversity than the Sikhs. Members of the Sikh community have long since been victims of hate crimes, workplace harassment, racial prejudice and more. However, as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sikhs were subjected to an even greater and more violent level of bigotry. Before we begin discussing how the Sikh community in NYC was affected by 9/11, some background information about the religion and culture associated with the faith ought to be given.

Founded in Punjab, India during the 15th century, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that exists separately from Islam and Hinduism. Although much of the Sikh population is found in India, more than 250,000 Sikhs live in the United States. One of the most defining characteristics of the religion and the most relevant to our discussion has been the abidance of the Khalsa, the religious dress code of the Sikhs (“The Five K’s”). The five articles of faith, or Kakaars, are:

1.) Kesh– uncut hair (gathered in a turban for men), which symbolize holiness

2.) Kangha– a wooden comb, which signifies cleanliness

3.) Katchera– specially made cotton underwear, intended to represent a commitment to purity and modesty

4.) Kirpan– steel sword, a means of displaying honor and strength

And 5.) Kara: a steel bracelet, which represents “restraint and gentility.”


Sikhs and the 5 K's

Sikhs and the 5 K’s

Each of these five Kakaars possesses a distinct purpose and significance but collectively function to form the external cultural identity of the Sikh; it is an outward display of their commitment and devotion to their faith. However, in NYC it is often hard to find a Sikh who dons all five articles of faith. More commonly, it is easy to identify a Sikh male as they wear turbans, traditionally known as pagris or dastars in India.

My friend, Aikam Singh, who grew up in a devout Sikh household told me that, “Because my parents are from Punjab but my sister and I were born and grew up here, we all had to sacrifice bits and parts of our culture. For example, because I went to public school and not a religiously affiliated school, it was hard for me to be outwardly religious. I wasn’t ashamed of my faith but in terms of the way most Sikhs dress, I couldn’t exactly conform and wear this traditional apparel. So at school, I would only sport the pagri and the kara. Honestly, even with that I couldn’t help but feel strange because everyone would always look at me funny, thinking ‘Like, dude what’s good with your head?’ So, with out of all garb that Sikhs ought to wear or do out of habit, like the sword or the religious clothing, I just couldn’t sport or wear them. Could you imagine if I carried the kirpan to school? I wouldn’t have made friends and everyone would have been up in arms.”

Despite wanting to conform to the Khalsa, Aikam’s experience revealed how he found it difficult to adhere to the religious code. Thus, his family and he had to be selective and chose what aspects of their cultural attire they desired to retain and would be able to outwardly wear, without sparking much racial harassment. Further, most male Sikhs wear blue, white, and orange kurtasor cholas, traditional wear for men, whereas women must wear salwar kameez. However, Aikam and I spoke about how most Sikhs, regardless of their gender, dress in accordance to contemporary fashion trends and styles. They wear cargo shorts, button-downs, parkas, etc. Because Sikhs, like many other ethnic or religious groups, feel conflicted between fully adhering to Sikh customs & ethnic practices and adapting to life in NYC, they choose to assimilate more than to retain. For Sikhs, it seems to be that they choose to follow the more subtle aspects of the khalsa, like wearing the katchera and kara.



Sikh Community Campaigning to # TakeOnHate

The 9/11 terrorist attacks proved to be incredibly devastating for the Sikh community, mainly the male population. Turbans or pagris mistakenly became a physical manifestation and symbol of terrorism. Due to a misguided and ignorant conception that anyone who wore a turban was automatically a terrorist or a supporter of jihadist ideology, many Sikhs “experienced a high volume of hate crimes” as a result of racial and religious profiling. In a series of retaliatory attacks and egregious crimes, Sikhs quickly became targets because they were perceived to be Muslim. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, to this very day, there have been a number of verbal and physical assaults directed towards Sikhs, with the most being here in NYC. For example, in the past year alone, NYC Sikhs were victim to a number of quite atrocious crimes: a Sikh professor was assaulted in Harlem, a Sikh pedestrian was violently stripped of his turban near Wall Street, a Queens Sikh was  run over by a truck, and a Sikh doctor was attacked on Roosevelt Island. (For more instances of hate crimes against Sikhs, visit: History of Hate Crimes Against Sikhs Since 9/11)


Ignorance and racial stereotyping perpetuated this type of xenophobic harassment and bias. However, this horrific trend is not limited to the adult population. According to a 2009 report by the Sikh coalition, 60 percent of turbaned Sikh youth had experienced verbal and physical assaults in their schools. Aikam had recounted to me that a few of the kids we had both grown up with were compelled to stop wearing turbans as they faced increasing racial and religious discrimination. Our mutual friend Yash Kapoor was badgered and verbally assaulted every day by his peers. Just imagine a small seven-year old kid being called derogatory names, like “Osama Bin Laden” or “terrorist.” The bigoted rhetoric escalated to a point where a few years down the line, Yash ended up cutting his hair and abandoning the traditional practice of wearing a turban. This video by Democracy Now indicates the little attention the Sikh community has received post 9/11 and highlights small instances of the larger, destructive phenomenon of racial profiling.

What is even more appalling is the type of policies that certain workplaces enforce or enact that fundamentally ban wearing turbans or a beard, both crucial aspects of Sikhism. Companies and business often want conformity in dress and look and perceive aspects of the Sikh culture to be detrimental for business and the good-will & image of the company; therefore, Sikhs face another predicament. Hiring authorities are not legally penalized for such practices, thus Sikhs are many times refused jobs for wearing turbans and long beards. For instance, Gurpreet Singh was declined from a position because “he would not shave his religiously mandated beard” at a Lexus dealership in NJ. Right here in NY, the NYPD does not allow turbaned Sikhs to serve as police officers! The American Bar even noted, “Often, employers deny a request for accommodation of a Sikh turban or beard under the rubric of ‘customer preference’ a preference that again relies upon Western notions of grooming.” Thus, assimilating outside the social realm, in an economic context, entails deserting cultural garb to meet business-owners needs or face economic hardships by adhering to traditional practices. In a social sense, cultural apparel can be modified and adjusted but within the economic realm, it’s hard to assimilate without completely leaving behind cultural garb. Because attaining economic opportunities is rather mutually exclusive to preserving their cultural identity, Sikhs have to fully abandon turbans to most white-collar work.

(For more about how other ethnic/religious groups face racial discrimination, visit Discrimination Against the Muslim Community.)


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