Wearing turbans helps define Sikhs

Program urges tolerance of their culture and customs

Sikh men in the Richmond area are usually noticed because of the turbans they wear.

The turban is not about fashion. It’s about religion. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Sikhs wearing turbans are mistakenly associated with terrorism, some members of the religion say.

A program Thursday by a local anti-bias group was designed to help teach tolerance and educate the public about Sikh culture and customs.

The turban is part of a uniform that binds Sikhs to their religious beliefs, said Dr. Baljit S. Sidhu, a Sikh who is a surgeon with Hopewell Orthopaedic Center Inc.

Sidhu, who attended the program, said Sikhism is a separate religion but has elements of Hinduism and Islam.

Wearing a turban is one of five symbols that define Sikhs, said Amandeep Singh Sidhu, regional director of the New York City-based Sikh Coalition and a student at the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams Law School. They are:

  • Kesh – uncut hair covered by a turban;
  • Kirpan – a small sword raised only in defense;
  • Kara – a metal bracelet that is a reminder of the Sikh’s responsibility to faith;
  • Kanga – a comb that serves as a reminder to always be neat; and
  • Kaccha – special underwear that is a reminder of a Sikh’s responsibility to family.

Amandeep Sidhu spoke at the celebration of Baisakhi, the spring holiday when Guru Gobind Singh gave the 1699 edict for the distinctive Sikh clothing and headwear. About 100 people attended the dinner program Thursday night at the University of Richmond.

The celebration was sponsored by A More Perfect Union, a project aimed at preventing bias against the Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities in the Richmond area. A More Perfect Union was started last July with a grant from the ChevronTexaco Foundation.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in northern India in 1469 by Guru Nanak. The religion has about 25 million followers worldwide, according to Amandeep Sidhu. More than 150 Sikh families live in the Richmond area.

Sikhism teaches devotion to God, truthful living, equality of human beings and social justice, he said.

Amardeep Singh, legal director of the Sikh Coali tion, described hate crimes and discrimination that Sikhs have suffered since 9/11. The coalition was created after the terrorist attacks to deal with ethnic backlash.

Examples of hate crimes included gunshots being fired at the home of a Long Island, N.Y., family and a 4-year-old California boy being struck in the head, he said.

Now there are fewer hate crimes, but the coalition is still dealing with employment situations in which Sikhs are told they cannot wear their turbans, especially in the service industry.

“A lot of service industries will say their customers don’t like looking at the turbans,” Singh said.

Amandeep Sidhu said there have been two incidents in Richmond. The local Sikh temple was broken into and some paintings were destroyed. The police determined it was vandalism and not a hate crime, he added.

The other incident was a restaurant in Shockoe Slip that would not allow Sikhs and Muslims wearing head coverings to enter. The restaurant changed its policy after the coalition sent a letter explaining the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sidhu said.

“At the end of the day, our mission has been to be like everyone else,” Singh said. “We just want to be good citizens. We want good things for our families.”

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