Transforming Nastiness With GraceBALPREET KAUR
When I walk around campus, or anywhere, I am keenly aware of the eyes on me.
The casual glance to my turban, then to my face, and then back, as if they had not stared at me in the first place.
There was a time last year when I would wonder what thoughts ran through their minds.
Did they find me weird? Would they tell their friends? Do they pity me? Would they question my gender, wonder why I didn't choose to just shave or why I wrapped my hair?
In their eyes, I saw mockery and hesitation. I had resigned myself to think that the world was full of only ignorant people -- no one would ever see beyond what I looked like.
This year, the stares are no longer offensive, nor do I see an inkling of hate in them. Instead, I see true curiosity and genuine wonder.
My own eyes did.
I learned to accept the curiosity as what it is: simple ignorance. They didn't know me, and they probably haven't seen another Sikh. And of course, they've probably never seen a Sikh woman who doesn't remove any of her body hair, including her facial hair. I started to view those stares as an opportunity to educate, to enrich and to elevate.
Last week, I did exactly this on the social news site Reddit, in response to someone who had surreptitiously taken a picture of me and posted it in the "funny" section with the caption, "I am not sure what to conclude from this."
I sat for several hours reading the mocking and mean responses that post evoked. I chose to respond through my new eyes, and through the grace offered by my Sikh faith. In my response to the picture of me and to the thread it sparked, I wrote:
"I'm not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it's who I am. Yes, I'm a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body -- it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will ... by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can."
What happened next surprised everyone, especially me.
More than a thousand comments appeared on Reddit supporting me, my faith, and my view of outer and inner beauty. Articles supporting me emerged everywhere from Jezebel to the Times of India and the Guardian in the UK. Even though I appreciate all the positive energy, I've spent the last 10 days or so trying to stay away from more media!
I aspired to act in the tradition of Guru Tegh Bahadar, who sacrificed his own life in exchange for freedom of religion for a tradition he didn't believe in. This is one of the stories that inspires me, as a Sikh woman, to believe there is no difference between a man and me. Just as a Sikh man, I too can adorn myself with a turban, choose to keep my hair, and live by the same discipline and love of the scriptures.
As part of my commitment to the Sikh faith, I have also trained to become an interfaith leader. An interfaith leader is someone committed to highlighting how her faith or philosophical tradition inspires her to bring people from all backgrounds together to build understanding and cooperation. I have attended the Interfaith Leadership Institutes of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) , a Chicago-based organization that trains college students nationwide to be interfaith leaders. I also mentor other student interfaith leaders as a coach with IFYC.
My first experience with IFYC was amazing (I'm actually wearing an IFYC shirt in the picture, with the organization's campaign theme -- Better Together). I discovered so many other college students who didn't see me as "the turbaned girl," but as Balpreet Kaur. In fact, there I learned how to talk to others about my faith, about who I am. And it wasn't awkward -- it was a breath of fresh air. For the first time, I wasn't afraid to initiate a positive dialogue about faith. In fact, when people saw that I was different, they came up to me and asked me questions.
I started wearing my heart on my sleeve and seeing every stare as a chance for dialogue and friendship. I began to firmly believe in the power of the spoken and written word. I finally began to realize that I had to take charge of my own narrative; if I didn't, then that ignorance I saw in people's eyes would never change into knowledge.
That's what it means to be a Sikh and an interfaith leader.
I hope my story inspires people to learn more not only about the Sikh tradition, but also about what it is in their own faith or philosophy that would inspire them to respond to moments of nastiness with grace. I also hope my story inspires people to become interfaith leaders themselves, and to support the programs of IFYC that are training hundreds of college students a year in this methodology.
Together we are better, together we can overcome prejudice, and together we can make interfaith cooperation a social norm.
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 06, 2012, 12:43 PM.
"munn jeetai jugg jeet" [GGS:6.17] - "Conquer your mind ... you've conquered the world!" Balpreet ji, may you have all the 'bal' in your 'preeti'. May Waheguru have His hand on your head always.
2: Seija Andersson (Alandic Archipelago, Finland), October 06, 2012, 3:12 PM.
These words: "What changed? My own eyes did". With these words we sink in the tank of Nectar. Thank you so much!
3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 06, 2012, 4:30 PM.
4: Simran (United States), October 06, 2012, 7:29 PM.
I am simply speechless and spellbound. I am embarrassed by my selfish self and yearn to be like her. I will keep trying. As someone posted above, "munn jeetai jugg jeet"
5: Jaspreet Kaur (USA), October 06, 2012, 8:59 PM.
You inspire me. Thank you!
6: Prempreet Singh (Australia), October 06, 2012, 10:03 PM.
A great inspiration for all ... may Waheguru bless you and gives you strength to continue spreading the awareness.
7: Jagdeep (Punjab), October 07, 2012, 3:21 AM.
All I can say is your devotion to your faith is unmatchable, unbeatable and full of sacrifice. These days, men and women do anything just to look 'better' so that they can attract others, they have forgotten that it is the inner beauty which makes them really attractive and the one who is attracted to them physically will leave them once the time passes. I respect your views. May our community get some more personalities like you. Rab raakha.
8: Dr Pargat Singh (Nottingham, United Kingdom), October 07, 2012, 2:20 PM.
Balpreet Kaur ji: you are living proof that wearing a dastaar and kesh takes courage. It is a powerful statement of belonging to our Guru. Well done. I wish you success in your studies. May the life that you pursue be the one that you live. Gur Fateh, ji.
9: Robert Parker (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), January 26, 2013, 6:57 AM.
But there must be some reasonable reason to keep hair on body, except religious ones ... and if it is that one should accept the natural look, don't Sikhs cut their nails? They too are part of the human body naturally.
10: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), March 16, 2013, 5:51 PM.
My dear Robert Parker, 'Reasonable reason' - really? Is life all reasonable reason? Black and white? There is a certain Sikh 'psyche' which only Sikhs can understand. Remember, faith begins where 'reasonable reason' ends. Our hair and dastaar (turban) have been our identity since the birth of Sikhi. We live according to the inspired lives our Gurus and forefathers had and set for us as an example, and we are happy with that. Only a Sikh/Khalsa can understand this and all we ask is acceptance from you. Yes, we value the crowning glory of our hair ... and we do cut our finger and toe nails. We do not need to look for some reasonable reason for that. Shabaash, Balpreet - we are very, very proud of you.