In Sikh culture, the turban is a symbol of spirituality, holiness, respect and self-honor. Why then do some people react to it with fear and anger?

Members of the Sikh community walk during the Parliament of World Religion Parade of Faithin Chicago.

Members of the Sikh community walk during the Parliament of World Religion Parade of Faiths in Chicago, 13 August 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

 This article, by high school student Ramanpreet Syan, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Ramanpreet is a student at The Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

“Go back to your country.”

This phrase haunts many Sikhs who live in the United States. Their continuous struggle can be traced back to the events of 11 September 2001.

Owing to a lack of understanding and sensationalized media narratives, Sikh individuals in the United States have been victims of hate crimes for years, primarily due to their religious head covering, the turban.

What is a symbol of reverence in their culture has regrettably become a point of contention for many.

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world with a core value of serving humanity. These values apply to the everyday life of Sikhs, making the racism they face a shock to them.

Turbans, the Sikh head covering, are typically worn by men, and they symbolize spirituality, holiness, respect and self-honor. After the events of 9/11 and the increase in Islamophobia, people began misinterpreting and stereotyping head coverings to be linked to terrorism.

Targets of hate

There are about 500,000 Sikh people living in the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition, an organization advocating for Sikhs in the United States. Worldwide, Sikhs remain the second most frequently targeted group in incidents involving hate crimes motivated by religion. In the United States, 192 Sikh people were victims of hate crimes in 2022, according to FBI data. The Sikh Coalition says that Sikhs are also six times more likely to be targeted for hate crimes and are among the top five groups that are the most racially-targeted. 

The Sikh Coalition was founded on the night of 9/11. In the first month following the 9/11 attacks it recorded more than 300 incidents of violence and prejudice against Sikh Americans nationwide. However, many Sikh hate crimes go undocumented.

Puneet Kaur is a Sikh woman and the senior state policy manager for the Sikh Coalition. “Once we have better reporting, we can start to address the root causes of these issues,” Kaur said. “The lack of information and education is another reason we see an increase in hate crimes.”

Often these crimes aren’t charged or investigated as hate crimes or even acknowledged as a crime of hate, she said.

“The sadness also comes with fear for the safety of my own family members, community members and friends, especially those who maintain religious articles of faith,” Kaur said.

Fighting intolerance

Most Sikhs in the United States are immigrants who came to America for new opportunities, but many end up with jobs such as waiting tables, working for gas stations and driving trucks. Many had prestigious degrees and jobs in India which were lost once they moved.

The turban and the long beard remains the root of many racially-motivated criminal offenses. One example of this includes Sikh truck driver Avtar Singh, 52, who was a victim of a hate crime shooting in the U.S. state of Arizona in 2003. Singh had parked his 18-wheeler to pick up his son. He endured two gunshot wounds to the abdomen and upper thigh.

My uncle, Sunny Syan, is a Sikh businessman in the U.S. state of Delaware. He believes that the intolerance has gotten worse. “I mean we see these incidents all over Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook, so that says enough for itself,” he said.

A “Gurdwara” is a holy place where Sikhs come together for congregational worship. In 2012, a Gurdwara in the U.S. state of Wisconsin endured a tragic shooting where a white supremacist shot and killed six innocent people and injured three.

Kaur recalled the Wisconsin shooting as one of the most eye-opening, tragic events in the United States. “It’s unfortunate that it takes such tragic events to make the case for changes like these, but it is an important time in history to look back on to measure how far we’re coming in this issue of hate crimes against Sikhs,” she said.

These crimes aren’t just happening in the United States.

Prejudice crosses borders

On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers invaded London’s transportation systems resulting in the death of 52 people and injuries of 770 others. After these attacks, Sikhs residing in the UK also became a target for hate crimes as a result of rising Islamophobia. On 16 August 2005, following the July attacks, a Sikh man had his turban pulled off and was racially abused in Northampton, England.

More recently, Jasmer Singh, 66, was targeted in the Queens borough of New York City. After a road collision, Singh was called “turban man” and beaten. The assailant, 30-year old Gilbert Augustin, slammed Singh’s head into the pavement. Singh later died from the injuries.

People most affected are those who wear turbans and work in jobs where they interact with different people, Syan says. “Because I don’t wear a turban, my experience is different, and honestly, I imagine better.”

As a Sikh woman living in Delaware, my articles of faith are not as distinguishable as turbans. My “kara”, or gold bangle, “Khanda” necklace and long hair are the only factors that show my religion. More specifically, men feel the pressure and become visible targets as their turbans and long beards are on display.

“The problem is that a whole lot of hate stems from fear which stems from ignorance,” Kaur said. “So the vast majority of the narrative media is that turbans equals terrorism. It’s really hard to combat that, right?”

Three questions to consider:

  1. What are the fundamental beliefs of Sikhism?
  2. Why do Sikh men wear the turban?
  3. Why do you think people who follow a particular faith would be intolerant of other religions?
Raman Syan

Ramanpreet Kaur Syan is a student at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. Ramanpreet is an artist who uses her voice and occasionally artwork to tell stories. She is passionate about her culture and the arts.

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CultureWearing a turban shouldn’t make you a target