A Rather Cheery Article in the NYT on the Decline of Sikh Turbans

The Sikh community has survived wars with the Mughals and then the British, the terrible bloodbath of the Partition, and then 1984 and its aftermath.

But according to a recent New York Times article, what is really weakening the defining symbol of Sikh community in India is just… well, laziness:

Like many young Sikhs, he found the turban a bother. It got in the way when he took judo classes. Washing his long hair was time-consuming, as was the morning ritual of winding seven yards of cloth around his head. It was hot and uncomfortable. (link)

And:

The dwindling numbers of turban wearers reflects less a loss of spirituality than encroaching Westernization and the accelerating pace of Indian life, Jaswinder Singh said.

He puts the start of rapid decline at the mid-1990s, as India began liberalizing its economy, more people began traveling abroad and satellite television arrived in the villages of Punjab. Working mothers are too rushed to help their sons master the skill of wrapping a turban, he said, and increasingly they just shrug and let them cut their hair.

“Everyone is working harder to buy themselves bigger cars,” he said. “They don’t have time to teach their children about the Sikh heroes. Boys take film stars as their idols instead.” (link)

Anecdotally, talking to cousins and other relatives, I’ve had the same impression: young Sikhs in India see the turban and beard as 1) hot and 2) unfashionable. It’s also interesting in this passage that busy working mothers are cited as part of the problem. (Quick poll for the Sikhs reading this: who taught you how to tie your pagri? Many Sikh men I know were taught by women in their families.)

Though she does have quotes from people who are unhappy about the phenomenon, I must confess that on an emotional level I do find Amelia Gentleman’s article a shade too cheery considering how much anxiety this trend causes amongst traditional Sikhs. Indeed, as the defining symbol of the Sikh tradition declines, it’s hard not to think of the core of the religion as declining as well.

Oddly, one of the factors named here — India’s hot climate — is less of a factor in places like the U.S., the U.K., and Canada.

185 thoughts on “A Rather Cheery Article in the NYT on the Decline of Sikh Turbans

  1. In Delhi amongst the Hindu Punjabis, it used to be asked, “Who goes for the Surd (Sardar) guys?” and the answer would invariably be “sadarnis of course, they like their own.” If Sadarnis find the look less appealing now, you cannot blame the Sadars for cutting their hair and shaving.
    Maybe “sardarnis” find the look less appealing because of the pernicious influence of people around them who asked questions like that. And who probably didn’t stop at the questions but went on to make a bunch of bigoted and tasteless jokes at the expense of the “Surd” community. Another fact is that Indian media, whether Bollywood or the television channels, has waged subtle, low-intensity, psychological warfare against Sikhs and Sikhism for a long time now…the goal of this war is assimilation…and most often the people behind the scenes have been Punjabi Hindus.

    Apologies for being so blunt, but re: comment #1 – this is stupid. I am tired of people blaming the decisions of Sikh men on the fickle preferences of Sikh women. There are tons of complicated (and accurate) reasons for why there is an increase in people cutting their hair in Punjab, imo. I am sure that sex appeal is not the only one, and if it is, I really feel bad that people are so insecure in their own self worth that they think that cutting their hair is going to magically get women to fall at their feet.

    And Amitabh is right. Sikhi has been often maligned and misrepresented in mainstream desi media, Bollywood and otherwise. I know some folks would argue that there have been “positive representations” in the past 5 years, but I would argue that Sikhi is often portrayed as something bizarre or “confused.” Prior to that, Sikhs were almost always portrayed as either the fool or the villain. I would argue that the way we have been treated in the media is similar to the historic treatment of African Americans in U.S. entertainment/media.

  2. Apologies for being so blunt, but re: comment #1 – this is stupid. I am tired of people blaming the decisions of Sikh men on the fickle preferences of Sikh women. There are tons of complicated (and accurate) reasons for why there is an increase in people cutting their hair in Punjab, imo. I am sure that sex appeal is not the only one, and if it is, I really feel bad that people are so insecure in their own self worth that they think that cutting their hair is going to magically get women to fall at their feet.

    Camille, you’re pretty quick to put guys down. Go online and take a look at the number of Sikh women who want men with cut or uncut hair. Most of the ads are for monas. Even women who like turbans and beards often want a “trimmer” and are pretty blunt about it. Like all sorts of discrimination, just becuz you don’t do it, or you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    That said, what I find super unattractive is the personalities of these same guys. I don’t think the % of jerks is higher among Keshdari Sikhs

    Woah – that’s a sweeping statement. What – once they cut their hair, they stop being assholes? Why do you think that monas are less likely to be a*holes, esp. given that they are still Sikh and Punjabi? Assimilation makes them nicer?

    You’re pretty quick to make sweeping statements both ways. Oh no, Sikh women couldn’t possibly be part of the problem. It’s all the guys fault. They’re a*holes, and they’re weak willed! But nobody discriminates against them. Uh huh.

  3. Camille: >>MoorNam, I was going to write something scathing

    As long as it’s a logical debate and not a personal attack, bring it on.

    M. Nam

  4. I don’t think the % of jerks is higher among Keshdari Sikhs
    Woah – that’s a sweeping statement. What – once they cut their hair, they stop being assholes?

    Dhari, Camille said she doesn’t think the % of jerks is higher among Keshdhari Sikhs. Not to be hard on you, it seemed like she said what you thought on a casual reading, even to me. Thought I’d clarify that before the thread goes off kilter again.

  5. Chachaji – they’re not jerks but they have unattractive personalities. Same diff. She’s making sweeping statements.

  6. If not jerks then dorks then. The same tired stereotypes about Indian men recycled. Except now, mona guys are the new white guys.

  7. Camille, thank you for the support. Yes it looks like we have a friend in common =)

    Female foeticide probably seems off-topic here, but for the sake of defending this thread: it came up because of the fact that there are fewer girls for every so many boys in Punjab now, and this is making competition stiff. If girls can be more selective now, they will be, and if they prefer cut-hair Sikhs, then more men are going to succumb to it. I don’t think this is entirely the reason for the rise in Sikh men cutting their hair, but one can’t rule it out as factor. And yes, Punjabi men in the West do NOT make the situation better by going to India and marrying the fewer and fewer girls that are left there. I don’t want to open a new can of worms, but it would be interesting to know WHY so many Punjabi men don’t want to marry Punjabi women raised here. I have my own speculations…

  8. And yes, Punjabi men in the West do NOT make the situation better by going to India and marrying the fewer and fewer girls that are left there.

    Maybe becuz women in the west think they have “unattractive personalities”. Not all women are like you Sonia.

  9. Sonia there a few reasons that alot of punjabi men don’t want to marry women raised in the west. These men are looking for a women that they and there mother can control. Plus alot of these women from Punjab don’t have much family in the west, so it will be harder for them to leave a bad marriage. I have heard so many stories about how these poor women from punjab who marry western husbands have no life of there own.

    In last couple of months there were 2 punjabi women in Vancouver who were killed by there husbands family. After they died both had the same story. The dead women family from India talked about how they were treated by there husband and his family. They had to work all day, they could never go any where by them selves, they were scared to leave cause they were afraid to lose there kids and shame there family. So instead they stayed in there unhappy marriage and it only cost them there life.

  10. Apologies for being so blunt, but re: comment #1 – this is stupid. I am tired of people blaming the decisions of Sikh men on the fickle preferences of Sikh women

    If Sikh women don’t find the turban attractive, what in the world are you going to do about it? “Reform” them? Why can’t we just accept that women have preferences, and that those preference impact men, instead of blaming Hindus or “the media” for what’s happening.

  11. roddick writes: >>Why can’t we just accept that women have preferences, and that those preference impact men

    And men have preferences that impact women. And parent-in-laws have preferences that impact children-in-laws. And society swings in various directions due to these preferences. And that there’s no right and wrong about it.

    So saying that Sikh boys cutting their hair is wrong or having preferences for sons is wrong or opining that someone spent $200K on their daughter’s sweet sixteen is wrong are all, well, wrong. And if carried to their logical conclusion, these attitudes of judging other’s personal preferences will end up negatively impacting individual rights for all of us.

    M. Nam

  12. opining that someone spent $200K on their daughter’s sweet sixteen is wrong are all, well, wrong.

    Fine, spending $200K for person A may be equivalent to spending $10K for person B, and both may be ‘wrong’ (or ‘right’) in their own way; but come on MoorNam, you can’t tell me that nothing shocks, offends, or bothers you? In your world, what qualifies as being ‘wrong’? I get the feeling you’re quite pleased with this philosophy you’ve developed, and you seem to think it applies to any and every situation imaginable. In my view that leads to rigidity and inflexibility; your views lack nuance and there are no shades of gray with you. Your attitude lacks humanity and empathy. And you’re very fortunate that you don’t have to actually live with the rules you’d like to see imposed on the rest of the world.

  13. Amitabh asks: >>In your world, what qualifies as being ‘wrong’?

    Any action that prevents or leads to prevention of others exercising their rights at their own expense.

    I get the feeling you’re quite pleased with this philosophy you’ve developed,

    I ride on the shoulders of intellectual giants who developed this philosophy millennia before my time.

    you don’t have to actually live with the rules you’d like to see imposed on the rest of the world.

    Actually, I’ve been doing exactly the opposite! I am asking others to not impose their rules on rest of us.

    Your attitude lacks humanity and empathy…your views lack nuance… .

    Debate only, please. Why are so many people resorting to personal attacks instead of talking about the issue? Is this because there is is no counter argument to offer? Come on folks – I’ve never attacked anyone personally, not even SpoorLam, whose entire energy is spent on personally attacking me.

    M. Nam

  14. Dhari, I said no such thing. You are free to re-read my comment. I think the % of jerks who happen to be Keshdari Sikh is about the same as the % of jerks of every color and creed. I discriminate equally in that regard :)

    What I will NOT do is write some long clarifying apology. As someone who has been super active in the Sikh community and who has worked on issues of Sikh representation, discrimination, etc., for over 7 years, I can assure you that my opinion on the maturity of men (in general) is not the primary reason that Sikh guys in Punjab are cutting their hair.

    Furthermore, I ask you how many SARDARNIS are asking for mona men to marry. I am referring directly to the statement that was posed (that I responded to above). I understand that Sikh men face real, painful, and oftentimes violent discrimination, mostly outside of India, but also within. However, within Punjab, I am unimpressed and do not believe the argument that guys are cutting their hair SOLELY because they think it makes them more physically attractive to Sikh women. My point is, I wish people would try harder to develop a nuanced understanding of the MANY factors that could contribute to this instead of blaming Sikh women, yet again.

    And, I reiterate, I am sick of people blaming Sikh women for the problems in our community. We [Sikh women] have enough drama to deal with without being blamed for every dilemma within the faith community. I am sure that we are not without some role in all of this; indeed, EVERYONE, Sikh and non-Sikh, probably has an influencing role in this issue. That said, instead of hating on Sikh women, maybe we could actually discuss the other relevant factors in this?

  15. I don’t want to open a new can of worms, but it would be interesting to know WHY so many Punjabi men don’t want to marry Punjabi women raised here. I have my own speculations…

    Sonia, didn’t we recently discuss this on another thread?

  16. Debate only, please. Why are so many people resorting to personal attacks instead of talking about the issue?

    MoorNam, it’s NOT a personal attack. I’m merely expressing my opinion and reaction to your posts. I haven’t insulted you in any way.

  17. Not sure if anyone has mentioned this, but I can recall going through the matrimonal section of Punjabi newspapers like Ajit Weekly as a teen and finding it impossible not to notice that the number of women with a preference for “clean shaven” Sikh men far outnumbered those who preferred one with a fully grown beard. It’s been a while since I’ve looked through such papers so perhaps someone who has a current copy lying around (or a shaadi.com account) can fill us in on whether this trend persists. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t. So although I agree with Camille that it would be a mistake to think that the sole reason Sikh men are shedding their kesh is to conform to the sexual preferences of Sikh and/or desi women, I don’t think this factor is an insignificant one.

  18. Furthermore, I ask you how many SARDARNIS are asking for mona men to marry. I am referring directly to the statement that was posed (that I responded to above). I understand that Sikh men face real, painful, and oftentimes violent discrimination, mostly outside of India, but also within. However, within Punjab, I am unimpressed and do not believe the argument that guys are cutting their hair SOLELY because they think it makes them more physically attractive to Sikh women. My point is, I wish people would try harder to develop a nuanced understanding of the MANY factors that could contribute to this instead of blaming Sikh women, yet again.

    Camille – ur right, it’s not the only reason. But, it is part of it. Think of peer pressure – what do young guys want? They want girls to think they’re hot. You don’t think bollywood affects girls too?

    Yes, more sardarnis want monas than the other way around, go online and see. In my family in India, I have female cousins who married monas, but no male cousins who married sikh girls with cut hair. Again, just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    Nobody is saying blame, but it is part of the picture.

  19. Umm, as a Hindu chick raised in the West can I just say…I find second gen Punjabi guys who choose to wear turbans ULTRA HOT. Nothing says character like that.

  20. I don’t want to open a new can of worms, but it would be interesting to know WHY so many Punjabi men don’t want to marry Punjabi women raised here. I have my own speculations…

    Sonia – maybe this is a California thing. I only know of two guys on the East coast who did (I’m sure there are more, but I only know two) and they were both from an older generation. Nobody I know from my or your generation did. On the other hand, I know multiple Sikh women in those generations who married out. I’m not claiming this is a representative sample, I just haven’t come across what you’re describing as a frequent occurrence.

  21. Ennis, maybe it is a CA thing. I would say that a good number of Sikh guys I know who are 1-2 generations older than me (so the 28-40 year old crew) have definitely gone to India to find a wife.

    Dhari, point taken :) I guess among my friends and family, it’s generally been mona-seeking-mona and sardarni-seeking-sardar. I found sardarnis to be much more discriminating, but again, it’s probably just my anecdotal experience.

  22. 165 · Camille on April 1, 2007 08:15 PM · Direct link I don’t want to open a new can of worms, but it would be interesting to know WHY so many Punjabi men don’t want to marry Punjabi women raised here. I have my own speculations… Sonia, didn’t we recently discuss this on another thread?

    That Sonia on there isn’t me…there are too damn many people with that name…

    159 · Clueless on April 1, 2007 04:32 PM · Direct link Sonia there a few reasons that alot of punjabi men don’t want to marry women raised in the west. These men are looking for a women that they and there mother can control. Plus alot of these women from Punjab don’t have much family in the west, so it will be harder for them to leave a bad marriage. I have heard so many stories about how these poor women from punjab who marry western husbands have no life of there own. In last couple of months there were 2 punjabi women in Vancouver who were killed by there husbands family. After they died both had the same story. The dead women family from India talked about how they were treated by there husband and his family. They had to work all day, they could never go any where by them selves, they were scared to leave cause they were afraid to lose there kids and shame there family. So instead they stayed in there unhappy marriage and it only cost them there life.

    Yep exactly what my speculations were…thanks for the reaffirmation =)

    158 · Dhari on April 1, 2007 04:09 PM · Direct link And yes, Punjabi men in the West do NOT make the situation better by going to India and marrying the fewer and fewer girls that are left there. Maybe becuz women in the west think they have “unattractive personalities”. Not all women are like you Sonia.

    I’d respond to this if I knew what exactly you were saying…

  23. Regarding importing girls from India – having lived on both coasts, I feel there is definitely a difference in the reasons for it. On both coasts, I’ve seen guys from my generation import because they’ve ruined their reputations here and can’t find a girl who wants to marry them – no joke. Let’s just say these guys tend to be in the entertainment industry. However, in terms of importing girls who they can control and expect to be obediant, I’ve definitely seen more examples of this on the west coast.

    That Sonia on there isn’t me…there are too damn many people with that name…

    Tell me about it! Anna had to nickname me Original Sonia because of all of you =)

  24. My view is that the article is indicating a positive development in Indias(Ok potentially khalistans(a very potent declaration may be required for that)). Just how does sporting a PaGindicate anything about the persons character.

  25. Amardeep (or anyone else) — to what extent do you think that being part of a post-1984 generation of Sikhs plays into this trend? Gentleman mentions the post-9/11 context creating a sense of insecurity, but (and this is unadulterated conjecture) I should think that within India itself, that is less of a factor than the insecurity arising from memories of 1984, especially for people who came of age in its wake.

  26. I’m actually surprised that the events of 1984 hasn’t led to more Sikh men wearing the turban out of pride and identity. I can understand men cutting their hair during the pogroms to avoid being targeted, but what has often happened after the fact is that a new sense of pride and community is created because of such a horrific experience. Maybe this isn’t a fair comparison, but I remember reading about how after 9/11, more Muslim women began wearing hijab out of a newfound appreciation for their religion which they took for granted before it was targeted as it is today.

  27. You where your hair long because that is what the sikh religion teaches u to do. it teaches u that u r fine the way u r, and u r how u r cuz God wanted u to be that way. If someone cuts their hair, i dont think that they are following their religion, so i wouldnt say that they are still sikh. They arent because they have just taken away their identity and gone against their religion. How can someone say that they are still sikh after they’ve cut off their hair? They can’t. And they can’t say that they will still go to gurudwara and pray and do paat, and hope that that will make up for not having long hair. Its just not the same.

  28. Men don’t blame your mother, Living in the Uk I notice we sikhs here seem to be more proud of our heritage than the ones in the US and Canada, I dont know why perhaps its because we will never be ”english” where as you canadians and Americans think thats your true identity. Mental strength is needed, someone wrote earlier that if ask 10 sikhs what happens after you die you get different answers, thats the way of the tiger. If you want to fit in and become a sheep like Socretes says then go ahead and assume the opinion of the majority in this case turbans and beards are not attractive, fashionable or wateva!, Im damn proud of my long hair! Im a throwback to the 17,18 or 19 century, no wonder the tiger is becoming extinct!

    Guys if you want to look better go on the hard and long path of getting real-health and go to the gym, spartans had long hair and beards and held off the persian assult and on the last day of battle ”combed thier long hair, rubbed oil in their bodies as this was sign of spartans getting ready to fight and to die”, wake up in the morning and groom yourselves without cutting your hair and get ready to fight the ignorance of this world,its a discipline for a select few.

    http://www.spartanhealth.com

  29. Men don’t blame your mother, Living in the Uk I notice we sikhs here seem to be more proud of our heritage than the ones in the US and Canada, I dont know why perhaps its because we will never be ”english” where as you canadians and Americans think thats your true identity

    not true,…..sikhs in usa & canada are much better than those in uk…..they are more attached towards their culture & religion…..sikhs in UK dnt even speak punjabi spclly grls…..they are not even interested…..they make fun of their own ppl…..if someone speaks punjabi they make fun of them….

    join a website called facebook…..& see wats the difference between uk sikhs & us,canadian sikhs….all those grls & few guys too knw is abuses……abuses & abuses…..i have so many frnds 4m canada & us…..they are too good…..i talked with sikhs 4m UK too…..& believe me they are too bad,rude,egoist…

  30. ‘girls don’t like turban and beard’. It’s the biggest reason for those who cut their hair and shave their beards. Even in my college half of those who support turban trim their beards, but i feel superiors with my nicely tied beard and well wrapped turban….it gives me a feeling of completeness. Whenever i stand infront of the mirror and look at my turban and beard i feel confident and feels authoritarian, born leader more influencing and i suppose girls like leaders…..isn’t it?

  31. 5 · Pugg pin said

    I completely agree with the laziness/comfort argument given in the article from my first hand experience in Punjab. In my High school class of 60+ students in rural Punjab there was a 50% split of turbaned and non-turbaned sikh students in early 1990′s. The major reason for students to get their hair cut was either “girls don’t like turbans” or too much hassle. I was one of the very few students in college who tied a turban and had long beard. Majority were either without turban and beard or tied a turban but trimmed their beards. Major reason for trimming beard or both “hair and beard” in college was again girls and convenience. Among the turbaned majority were doing it for family pressure and given their own free will they would happily do without the turban.As an aside even though was less religious than some of my shaven-Sikh friends I was always considered more religious and I was expected to act/behave differently than those with their hair cut. In my village majority of youth in the age group 14-25 have their hair cut. At a wedding my grand mother (who is very religious) commented “Hun ta aa ghonne monney juaak vi sohne lagg de aa” (Nowadays even kids with short hair look cute), that because there are so many of them. Incidentally as a Sikh I don’t see a problem this. I see turban as a political symbol for freedom/right of self expression rather than a spiritual thing. In present day India turban as a political symbol doesn’t seem to be that important for youth, whereas career and material success are, and having or not having a turban is probably insignificant in that pursuit.

    I fully agree with this. The family environs is usually actingas a pressure to keep on th eturbans. But having cut hair does not make you a lesser Sikh. And with the rising trend the grandmothers will give sanction. Mothers are therfore more progressive and actually helpful in assisting their children(boys and girls) to cut their hair. It is so cnvenient and also makes one mix with the mainstream. It is afterall a ver ypersonal choice and should not be made into much of an issue. In India and that to in Punjab more than 80% boys have cut their hair. Girls are not far behind and the young generation is looking out for an excuse to go for teh unturbaned look. No special guesses for this! It is sooo Convenient and yes. ladies save so much of time and it definitely is less of a bother.

  32. I look to hearing from more persons on this. It is the issue for today and surely someone mentioned that there is more confusion in Sikhs than in any other religion. More progress means more questions and then more ambiguity!!

  33. How about the reverse? Hasn’t the number of girls who keep their hair long gone down amongst Sikh women as well? I mean from a religious perspective, girls should keep their hair shouldn’t they? And does the number of girls cutting their hair have to do with male preferences? Would like to hear others thoughts on this.

  34. It seems like the problem of sikh youth denying turbans is everywhere. I am 24 year old sikh male that lives in san jose, ca. I have a hair cut and came from punjabi when I was 14. At that time and even now Ive seen most of the sikh youth with haircuts. around the ages of 15-30 I would say in california I have only seen about 10% of the sikh young adult males have turbans the rest have haircuts. sad but nothing can be done about it times have changed.

  35. If a Sikh can only be defined by whether or not he wears a turban then the Sikh population of the UK is only half the official number. It comes down to how Sikhs define what a Sikh is themselves.