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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Faith and fitting in

Younger Sikh men choose between turbans and blending into the suburbs

There's no mistaking a Sikh man who follows the tenets of the religion: He grows his hair and ties it in a turban.The look is unique and makes him stand out, as the religion intended.

That individuality, however, has some younger Sikhs turning away from the turban because they don't want to stick out when they perceive pressure to fit in.

This trend, some Sikhs say, isn't limited to America. Even in India, fewer youths are wrapping their hair in a turban every morning.

"In general it's a kind of a natural desire to fit in," said Rajinder Singh Mago, a member of the Sikh Religious Society in Palatine....

Three young men tied to the Palatine gurdwara shared their own stories of wearing the turban. One decided to counteract stereotypes after Sept. 11 and embraced the idea.

Another felt he was no longer able to wear a turban as he grew older.

The third felt a pride in his religion as he studied it, which reinforced his lifelong practice of not cutting his hair....

Some Sikhs have been attacked because of their outward appearance.

On Friday, a Pakistani student at a New York City high school was charged with a hate crime for cutting the waist-length hair of a 15-year-old Sikh, police said.

Just four days after Sept. 11, 2001, a Sikh man planting flowers in front of his shop in Arizona was shot and killed, reportedly because he was wearing a turban.

Parminder Mann, a 26-year-old Oak Park resident and a Sikh, said the murder was shocking to his community.

"It was kind of like an awakening," said Mann, who works at Motorola in Deer Park.

Although the Sikh community expected to face some backlash because members are often mistakenly thought to be Middle Eastern or Muslim, a death like Balbir Singh Sodhi's in 2001 was jarring.

"Even in the '80s with the Ayatollah, we were confused with Iranians," Mann said. "I think almost every Sikh knew then that we're going to face a lot of hatred."

It was after the Arizona murder that Mann decided he needed to grow out his hair and start wearing a turban to educate people about Sikhs.

"I was seeing all this stuff happening, people getting beat up and old people getting yelled at," Mann said. "I thought about what I can do for my community. The whole thing about being an American is being proactive."

He equates wearing a turban to the hijab, or head scarf, that Muslim women wear.

"You're kind of the ambassador of your faith," he said.

Not the right time

Kevindeep Atwal, an 18-year-old resident of Palatine, wore a turban until he was 14.

The Sikh faith is a strong part of his family, which is deeply involved in the Palatine gurdwara. His grandfather helped found the temple.

When Atwal turned 14, however, he decided he could no longer wear a turban, at least not in this stage of his life.

"It was more of a utility thing for me," Atwal said. "I think of myself as pretty religious, but I had to perform a routine every morning that lasted 35 to 40 minutes."

While he knows other Sikhs who have gotten teased in grade school and high school for wearing a turban, he said that was never an issue for him.

"I had my own choice to make," said Atwal, a Northwestern University student. "I do consider wearing it in the future, within the next 10 years."

He said others his age have probably forsaken the turban for a simple reason: It's easier to date if you don't wear one.

"A lot of younger guys are into the guy-girl relationships in order to be more Western," Atwal said. "Appealing to the opposite sex more: That, I think, is a pretty big reason people stopped."

He said although wearing a turban is a symbol of honor, he feels that he's found a good balance without it. He's found an internal spirituality even though it's no longer externally displayed. That decision, however, doesn't come without doubts.

"I feel more pressure to wear it than I do not to," he said. "I understand where it's coming from because I believe in the same things. (Those who want me to wear a turban) are coming from something loftier than just an interest in appearance."

Pride in your faith

While Narinder Singh grew up in a strong Sikh household, as he matured he started questioning why his family practiced the religion the way it did.

"I wanted to know why we looked so different, why it is so important," said 24-year-old Singh, who works for a bank in Rolling Meadows and lives in Palatine.

The more he read about the Sikh history, the more pride Singh felt in his creed.

One of the turning points for Singh was when he read of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth of 10 Sikh gurus, who sacrificed his life for the freedom of all religions, not just Sikhism.

"Right there I knew there was something special that made me want to practice my religion even more," Singh said.

Although he always sported long hair, after he graduated from high school, Singh decided to start wearing a turban.

Singh said many of his friends have been concerned that a turban could affect their jobs or personal lives. They question how they can find work when they look so different, but Singh said that wasn't a major issue for him.

"Wearing a turban can either break you or make you stronger," Singh said. "It's just the wanting to assimilate, wanting to blend in when we were made to stand out."

He said he feels like he represents his religion now and is more careful about how he acts.

"It's more of a lifestyle than something you do on a particular day," Singh said. "It's the way you treat people in a particular day." [Link]

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