Kids Corner


Urban Turban:
The Roundtable Open Forum # 113





Urban spaces are becoming a melting pot of cultural identities. With the same vigour, ethnic identities are claiming their roots to maintain a distinct character.

Within this new assertion of identity sometimes a new element is added -- of gender equality.

Post 9/11, while Sikh-Americans were grappling with the idea of their distinct identity (so as not to be confused with the beard of the Muslim or the Afghan turban), Sikh women -- who universally go by the common last name, ‘Kaur’, to differentiate from the common male last name, ’Singh’ -- began a fresh assertion of their identity.

One of the ways the exploration surfaced was a blog-based survey titled “What does a Kaur look like?”

The search began because the Sikh female identity is not as visible as that of the Sikh male who sports a turban and beard.

The answer was found in the distinct look some amritdhari women have adopted in recent decades, by appropriating the dastaar or turban in order to assert themselves as equals within the Sikh milieu.

[The dastaar is not mandatory to Sikh women, not even for those who are amritdhari, though greater numbers than before have begun to wear one in recent decades. In fact, majority of the amritdhari women today do not wear the dastaar. Moreover, wearing the dastaar does not add in any manner to the woman’s status; it remains a personal choice.]

The survey concluded three major reasons why this particular identity is found to be attractive to the modern urban Sikhni.

One, religion is often assumed to be patriarchal. Therefore, Sikh women are using the religious idiom to assert themselves as equals within the Khalsa, as was the case with women in Punjab for centuries.

Two, the significance of the dastaar is far more religious than sartorial.

And, three: Though concern for safety in a city may not be one of the reasons for choosing to become amritdhari and wearing the five articles of faith, particularly the kirpan, but the experience of the city certainly plays an important role in reinforcing the choice.


Sikhs fully observant of the Khalsa discipline don the five ‘kakkaars’ -- articles of faith, each name beginning with a ’k’ : kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (comb), karra (steel bracelet), kachhehra (breeches) and kirpan. These are an essential part of the identity given by the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, as the prescribed ‘uniform’ of the Khalsa, and must be worn at all times. However, for most non-Sikhs, the dastaar or turban is a symbol generally associated with men, because traditionally the turban has been and is a male headgear..

“If men cover their heads, so do women. If men wear dastaars, so do women. I can’t imagine Guru Gobind Singh demanding any less of his daughters than his sons”, said one of the respondents to the question, “What triggered you to wear the dastaar?’

Having said this, these Sikhnis do recognise that being ‘visibly religious’ is perceived, even by many other Sikhs, as being ‘orthodox’, or ‘kutturrh’ (steadfast). In response, the dastaar-wearing women deny these associations, using the religious idiom itself to assert their equal status in the Khalsa.


While it is uncertain who the first turbaned woman was in the Khalsa, all of these women draw inspiration from Mai Bhago or Mata Bhag Kaur, a female warrior in Guru Gobind Singh’s army. Some describe her as the first female bodyguard. Her example is often used to highlight gender equality as being one of the foundational principles of the Khalsa.

By placing the wearing of the dumalla within a politico-historical context, these women affirm credibility to this practice.

“The Mughals forbade anyone except the royals from wearing turbans, riding horses, carrying weapons or keeping eagles. This was precisely why these were the symbols the Sikhs chose to adopt,” said Sarabjeet Kaur who has an insurance and tax services business and also runs a school to impart religious instruction among children, in California.

Dr. Harpreet Kaur, an anaesthetist, points out that in defiance, they wore not just one, but two turbans! She also explains the prohibition on nose-piercing because the Mughals would pierce the nose of the Hindu women they captured, symbolising their slave status.

”We are not slaves to anyone and women are not the slaves of men”, she asserts.

These women also have unique ways of explaining personal philosophies that govern their religious practices which is reflective of individual volition. Siri Kaur, a management consultant who has been an amritdhari for 11 years, says: “The idea is not to become fanatic about religion. I am more spiritual. My work is my first ‘karam‘, and for me it is most important. I have to travel a lot, so I go to visit Gurdwara Bangla Sahib whenever I’m in the city (Delhi).”


While speaking of the turban and kesh, Harroop Kaur, a nursing student in California, draws from her knowledge of science to explain her view.

“When we comb our hair there is static - that electricity, that energy - the simran and paatth channels it through the hair, and the dastaar protects it. The dastaar then works as a huge storehouse of energy. So the dastaar is a lot more than just identity -- it has a function.”

Though one may or may not agree with the logic of it, some women also spoke about how it was important not to judge others and that the significance of certain practices could only be understood when one had achieved a certain level of spiritual maturity.

Leading an amritdhari life is actually a matter of kirpa (grace), and people can’t be judged for not taking it up, said twins Luvleen and Gurleen Kaur, both students at the University of Dehi pursuing Master‘s degree in Science.

Dr. Harpreet Kaur, however, had a very different take on the subject.

“After a while you realise that there is no point in discussing these things with people who don’t understand. Jisne kheer khai hi na ho, toh use kya pata ki kheer kaisi hoti hai - ki usmey cheeni hai ya mirch?” (If one has never tasted rice-pudding, one cannot know whether it is sweet or spicy.)


The older women seemed to have built up more resilience to the pressures of conformity which are ubiquitous in an urban setting.

“I don’t think it is anyone’s business to comment on other people’s faith or their looks”, says Dr Harpreet Kaur. Young women wearing the dastaar, on the other hand, are constantly required to defend their choices to family and friends.

Shobha Kaur, a professor at the University of Delhim says that when she took to wearing the dastaar her friends rued her lost beauty.

Most amritdhari girls and women do not take up the dastaar. For some, the choice may be because they think it may affect their social lives, particularly their marriage prospects.

To those who think this way, Luvleen and Gurleen say, laughing: “We tell them, baandhne se nahin milega toh nahin baandhne se bhi nahin milega!” (If you can’t find a partner if you wear one, then you won’t find one if you don’t wear one.)

The pressures of conforming to the popular trends and fashions extend beyond the requirement of keeping the hair on the head unshorn.

In a recent incident, Balpreet Kaur from the US replied to malicious comments about her facial hair on the popular content-sharing website, Reddit, saying: 

“When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain; and, 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. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.“

When asked about their own appearance, the young women attribute their beauty to the natural form that the Guru gave them and to bearing his ‘crown’, the dastaar.

Damanjeet Kaur, an ex-model who is now an amritdhari who has also chosen to wear a dastaar, said, “The dastaar is like our crown and our Guru wanted us to look beautiful wearing it.”

While they reject hair removal entirely, and for the most part makeup as well, the girls take pains with their dastaars, tying them in different styles, with different fabrics, and even decorating them.

“I have heard that there are four prescribed colours, but if boys can match their turbans, why can’t we?” says Jalnidh Kaur, who is doing an M.Phil in Economics at Oxford University.

However, the significance of the dastaar is far more religious than sartorial, whether as a storehouse of spiritual energy, as a constant reminder of the Guru’s presence in their life or as a form of seva, inspiring others to take on the dastaar.

One does not ‘wear’ a dastaar, one adorns oneself with it.


The turban isn’t just an article of faith or a symbol of identity, according to Shobha Kaur. Together with the kirpan, it also acts as a ‘visual shield’ in a city like Delhi, generally considered unsafe for women.

Harroop says: “The kirpan is a last resort, but one should make sure that it is actually sharpened. Look at my kirpan, it’s not a puny three inch thing. I don’t just have it for show. I sharpen it regularly and I can use it if I need to defend myself in an emergency!”

She also believes that learning Gatka, the Sikh martial art, empowers women. “Even at my Gatka class there are very few girls. A lot of them assume that not much is expected of them. I tell them you will not have it easy, I’m going to be just as hard on you as I am on the guys.” She instructs girls in Gatka.

These practices provide a sense of safety and security to these women, also giving them the confidence and strength to help others, and thereby to do seva, an essential principle of Sikhi.

Gursimran, who rides a ‘scooty’ to college as she is not allowed to travel on the Metro with her kirpan, recounted an incident where she helped a woman chase a thief. She then went with her late at night to register the police complaint. As Damanjeet puts it, “People ask ‘don’t you feel scared, going out by yourself at night’? I tell them, “I didn’t wear the kirpan to be scared!”

The dastaar seems to act in a similar way in the lives of these women; it suggests strength and courage.

Becoming an amritdhari involves not just adopting the Sikh articles of faith but also internalising the philosophy behind them. They are important reminders of responsibilities not just towards fellow believers but to all human beings.

Therefore, these Sikh women consider themselves to be better equipped to handle the challenges posed by the modern urban environment by wearing the articles of faith as well as internalising the philosophy.


We invite you, our readers, to share your thoughts on the issues raised in this essay.


[This article is based on research conducted by a group of students of the Delhi School of Economics. With inputs from Pawanjeet Singh Judge, Arif Hayat, Sophia Abbas, and Karandeep Mehra.]

[Courtesy: Tribune. Edited for]
January 14, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Harpreet Kaur (New Delhi, India), January 14, 2014, 2:27 PM.

Sikhi offers us all freedom of choice. If some women want to wear the dastaar, wonderful. Others don't want to, that's wonderful too. But no matter what you do, work on yourself internally with the great values that our faith is blessed with, and externally in being beautiful and smart and well-dressed. After all, as Sikhs we are expected NOT to be ordinary. N-Y-A-A-R-A is the key word. Outstanding ... and standing out. In how we live and behave and work and play and inter-relate with the world. Period.

2: Kulwant Singh (U.S.A.), January 14, 2014, 4:44 PM.

In his hukamnamas, Guru Gobind Singh told his Sikhs to always adorn themselves with a turban. He didn't specify if this was for men or for women. Then why should it apply exclusively to either sex?

3: Ek Ong Kaar Kaur (Espanola, New Mexico, USA), January 14, 2014, 10:26 PM.

Great article!

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 15, 2014, 9:19 AM.

I decided to sit down and meditate just before leaving the Darbar Sahib from the main steps at the clock tower entrance/exit. After about five minutes or so, I opened my eyes and passing before me was a southern European looking young ady wearing a three quarter length khaki trousers, a simple half sleeve top and to cover her hair as required to enter any gurdwara, she had wrapped her multi-coloured scarf around her head as a dastaar. She looked like the coolest female on earth! And this, at the Darbar Sahib! The Guru's teachings and words are truly awesome!

5: Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa (Eugene, Oregon, USA), January 15, 2014, 10:34 PM.

Wearing a turban keeps my mind focused. Wearing a turban reminds me that Guru Gobind Singh is my father. Our spiritual pita ji gave the rules, and those rules say to wear a turban. Those who don't want to, fine. But oh, why miss the spiritual blessings?

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 113"

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