The Terms and Conditions for being Sikh in the Workplace

Navjot Pal Kaur
27 min readSep 8, 2020


Many countries in the diaspora have fought with Sikhs over our religious articles of faith and just how much of our kes is permitted in the workplace. From Simranjit Singh’s post commerating the 60 years that we have fought for our right to wear our religious articles of faith and just how much that connection runs deep into the struggles we face in the COVID-19 world, when it comes to whether or not Sikhs can keep their beards and turbans while working to save lives, it’s always been clear that our right to Sikhi comes with terms and conditions when it comes to living in the world — even in Punjab. Western countries would prefer that we remain in obscurity when we grow their food, fight their wars but not drive buses and be in a position of high visibility.

Credit: The Guardian Newspaper

Sikhs have spent much of our time in the western diaspora negotiating with the world over how much our Sikh identity and religious worship can be out for display. In the time of COVID-19 that situation has become much worse as employers continue to say the turbans that Sikh men wear in observance with their faith, is causing a problem when it comes to being able to maintain proper health standards in the work place.

When I wrote about time that then-Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and her denial of a job to a Sikh man wearing a turban even though he had passed all the necessary qualifications to become a prison guard in the California state prison system, there was much debate within the Sikh community as to whether or not Harris was in the right to make that judgement. The political ramifications that debate coupled with the fact that Sikh men have had to make the painful decision of shedding their kes so they could do their jobs, really puzzles me about the true extent to how much people are vigilant about the issue. One thing is for sure though, our dastaars have always been a political factor in our community’s ‘assimilation’ to the west and it’s norms.

Somethings we always happen to have to negotiate are:


Canada had it’s first Sikh run for Prime Minister in the form of New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh. Singh is actively vocal about the inequities in Canadian society and has faced his own collective racism about his appearence.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh

In a country like Canada, where the Minister of Defense in Prime Minister Tradeau’s administration -Harjit Sajjan- is allowed to keep his beard, Sikh-Canadian doctors are being told they must choose between keeping their job and saving people’s lives from COVID-19, or getting rid of their turban and beards for ‘safety reasons.’

As CNN reported back in May of 2020:

Dr. Sanjeet Singh-Saluja, an emergency doctor and physician at McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal, said he and his brother, also a doctor, shaved their beards so they could properly wear N95 face masks that offer protection from the coronavirus.

“One of the pillars of the Sikh faith is Seva, which is service to mankind. I have always viewed my work at the MUHC as a chance for me to fulfill my faith’s expectations of service,” Singh-Saluja said in a video explaining his decision.”

However, another pillar of the faith, as many of you know, is Kesh, which is the practice of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. In this time of pandemic, I am faced with an existential crisis as the latter has severely limited my ability to serve.”This is a decision made after many weeks of soul searching and many sleepless nights.

This is a very difficult decision for us, and one we feel is necessary in this time of need,” Singh-Saluja said.

“This is a decision that has left me with great sadness, and I truly mourn the loss of something that has been a major part of my identity.”

MUHC declined to comment, saying the brothers made “a personal decision.”

CNN Photo/ Dr. Sanjeet Singh-Saluja after shaving his beard.

Though Canada and England have historically relied on Sikhs to drive their buses, grow their food and fight their wars, the fact that Sikhs are being told that they need to choose between their faith and their job is a sign of the West’s inability to accept people as they are but also they continue to draw the line in the sand as to whether or not you can keep facets of your identity while saving lives and Sikhs have historically been faced with the decision of whether to assimilate or to fight back and fight for their articles of faith.

Having to negotiate just how much we can be visible versus how much of us we need to hide is an exhausting thing that we continue to have to do. In a country like Canada where they say they are very tolerant and inclusive this weeks of intolerance in the exclusion. Montreal in particular is one city where they have primarily been active against discriminating against Muslims and Sikhs.

In a law passed by the Quebec National Assembly, Bill 21, was a highly controversial decision made by the jurisdiction to limit the expression of Muslim women in particular when it came to the Islamic faith. According to Nora Loreto of The Nation magazine, Bill 21, “was ostensibly passed to enshrine official secularism, but it’s a reflection of Quebec society’s entrenched fixation with limiting displays of Islamic faith, especially the hijab — an obsession of right-wing pundits in the province’s French-language media.”

This is largely because most of the employees affected by the ban are public school teachers — 75 percent of whom, in Quebec, are women. (The law does not cover workers such as day care employees, college or university professors, or custodial or secretarial staff.) Some people have agreed to remove their hijabs at work. Some religious families have decided to leave the province. Although the law also prohibits the wearing of turbans and kippahs, the burden of the ban has been overwhelmingly borne by Muslim women; there have been no debates about whether a male teacher can wear a religious beard. The phrasing around what constitutes a “symbol” is deliberately vague; all the government has said for sure is that a tattoo of, say, a cross wouldn’t violate the law.

Jagmeet Singh fights back against racism in Canadian institutions. Credit: CBC

This is just last year. In 2019. Canada has bragged about being a better alternative to the United States, but in reality it has it’s deep rooted racism an violence against black bodies. In fact, when New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh called out the racism of his colleague for not supporting measures to reign in police and to address police brutality, he was kicked out the chamber. As CNN reports of the incident:

Singh made the accusation in the House of Commons after Alain Therrien, from the Bloc Québécois party, declined to support a motion calling on parliament to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force.

The motion also set out that de-escalation should be a police priority, that the use of police force should be reviewed and that additional funding should be given to health services.

However, while the motion had broad support from members of parliament, Therrien rejected it, leading it to be struck down.

Not only is Canada not willing to investigate the racism of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force, but they kick out any members who seek to root it out and even acknowledging that Canada MIGHT be racist is also grounds of getting ejected from the session.

In delivering Labor Day reflections Prime Minister Tradeau had this to say:

“This year has been difficult for Canadian workers, as they feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the front lines, essential workers have risked their health to provide the services and care that Canadians count on every day. They have helped us throughout the crisis by caring for our loved ones in nursing homes, or ensuring we have access to the food and supplies our families need. Workers from every sector and industry have also stepped up and made personal sacrifices to help keep Canadians safe and healthy — whether by staying home and social distancing or helping provide services that we relied on during the pandemic — and the Government of Canada will continue to do everything it can to support them in this challenging time.

Glaringly missing however is also the fact that Canadian essential workers of faith have been made to feel inferior due to their religious articles of faith and they actively have had to make deeply personal decisions about saving lives at the expense of their religion. Canada also has the rise in violence against turbaned Sikh men as it has been happening in the United States.

Canadian authorities -just like U.S. and the United Kingdom have historically established ‘assimilation’ tactics, wherein the very extension off welcome into their societies has been contingent on the successful integration of Sikh Americans.

The Komagata Maru incident in particular is the establishing point for which we see how much destructive the power of racism can be.

Credit: PNG

In the thesis of Gurdeep Singh Jagpal, he talks about his collective identity as being a Canadian and a Sikh.

Singh writes that:

Racialization creates and reproduces stereotypical views towards different demographics. Ingrained stereotypes impact a person’s actions, perceptions, and attitudes towards different groups (Carroll and Gonzalez, 2014; Comack, 2012; Gorbunova et al., 2015; Johnson, 2007; Smith and Alpert, 2007). Gorbunova and others (2015) discuss how in their experiment of Berlin neighborhoods, participants gave less trust towards those who resided in negatively stereotyped neighborhoods than those who lived in a positive stereotyped neighborhoods (Gorbunova et al, 2015). Lower income and unfavorable sociodemographic live in negatively stereotyped neighborhoods. Participants view negative stereotyped neighborhoods as less safe compared to other neighborhoods (Gorbunova et al, 2015). Stereotypes impact police practices (Johnson, 2007; Carroll and Gonzalez, 2014). Johnson (2007) conducted a study in which he analyzed the behaviors of guilty and non-guilty Black and White civilians when they were interacting with police officers. Johnson (2007) argues that police are taught to look for specific cues, such as constant hand gestures, pauses in speech and smiles, to determine who is lying and who is likely to be a criminal. Innocent Black civilians were more likely to display characteristics officers were taught to look for than any other groups that were studied (Johnsn, 2007). Thus Black civilian characteristics are stereotyped as belonging to a criminal. Furthermore, Carroll and Gonzalez (2014) discuss how stereotypes impact a police officer’s quick judgement. An officer is more likely to frisk a Black person during a pullover, as an officer is quickly assessing who is dangerous and who is not. This bias was less prevalent in a search, as the officer had more time to evaluate the scenario (Gonzolaez, 2014). Officers stereotype more when they have less time to determine who is dangerous (Gonzolez, 2014). Because of ingrained stereotypes, minority groups face harsher treatment.

In addition to racialization, critical white theorists argue racial profiling occurs because a White person’s traits are considered normal, while nonwhites traits are considered abnormal (Tator and Henry, 2006; Nayak, 2005; Nayak 2007). These scholars argue not enough attention is given to the role White groups have in the construction of minority groups. Nayak (2005) theorizes how whiteness escapes racialization, thus becomes normative and dominate. All other groups racialization is tied to whiteness and thus compares racial traits to normative “white” traits (Nayak, 2005; Nayak, 2007). The White man’s fantasy constructs the view of minorities such as depicting Black people as macho, savage and Brown people as feminine and weak (Nayak, 2007). This theory is most evident in crime. Tator and Henry (2006) discuss how a racial minority group receives blame for offenses committed by a few of its members. In contrast, the whole White community does not receive blame for crimes committed by a few of its members. Instead, the community will label the offense as a regular part of the society (Tator and Henry, 2006). Whiteness creates a double standard and impacts the perception of ethnic minorities.

In this abridged version of Singh’s paper, the central point that is important to note is that the ways in which public perception is formed about minorities is important to the way they are treated. This is just from the perception of a Sikh man stopped by Canadian police.

He also goes on to note that:

Participants complained about different treatment by establishments, in services, and by those who have positions of power. Jeet Singh was a participant who faced discrimination in the workplace and by a person in a position of power. Jeet Singh studied nursing for his undergrad degree. For his degree, Jeet Singh is required to take a placement in an Ontario hospital. He faced difficulties finding a placement for his nursing program, as he has a beard and refuses to cut it for religious purposes. Hospitals require their nurses to shave their faces entirely to wear an airtight mask. Some hospitals in Ontario will make exceptions for religious purposes while others will not. Other fields of work make exceptions for wearing a beard, such as the Canadian army. The field of nursing does not give this exception. Jeet eventually found a placement.

However, during his placement, Jeet was not treated fairly by a security guard at the hospital. This passage describes issues Jeet had when he returned to the hospital from his break:

So sometimes I would walk there, grab like a coffee and come back. Then the security guard would be like I need to see your id and I am like you had saw me leave, you see me coming back, like how many people are coming back at 2 o’clock in the morning. I still show it, but stuff like that, that I would consider as like they at the same time, you would see other people that looked differently, they would never get stopped. Like why are you stopping me?

The security guard forced Jeet to show his ID every time he returned to his workplace. The security guard did not require Jeet’s peers to show their id. Jeet was treated differently than his peers by the same security guard in the same scenario. Jeet, like other participants, was monitored and treated differently because of his appearance. Another participant named Harjeet complained that a security guard was racist towards him when he visited a shop. Paur (2008) argues turbaned bodies are profiled more. Those who are not American, are to be watched, monitored (Paur, 2008). In Paur’s words, “to monitor the turban and the body to which it is attached-reflects the joint operations of ocular, effective, and informational profiling (Paur, 2008, 69).” As Sikh males are different, they will be monitored more severely by security profiling practices. These joint operations of profiling become common, such as profiling in airports. These systemic issues can cause hardships and annoyances towards Sikh males.

Sikh males were also treated differently in a variety of different settings. One of the participants, named Sukhi, described a variety of places where he felt he was being treated differently than his peers. Sukhi said:

I see different treatment when we go to certain restaurants. So higher class, profile places. Also, I think I have been treated differently by the authorities. Categorized as a wrongful doer just because of the presentation of the clothing that I wear, or either by the colour of my skin. I have been treated differently or been treated less then others of a different ethnic background.

Sukhi is a young male of our community who preferred to wear baggy clothes and hats. In Sukhi’s example, high-class establishments are telling an aspiring Sikh youth that he does not belong. His authority figures example included teachers. He gave an example of how a teacher looked at him negatively for the bangles he wore, which is a part of his cultural attire. His authority example also included treatment from police officers. Sikhs such as Sukhi face different treatment because there are some misunderstandings of different cultures in Canada. Judge (2003) argues there is a differential cultural understanding of European immigrants and Indian immigrants. Perceptions of Canadian identity view Indian culture as out of place. Parmjit S Judge (2003) describes an example in which an individual asked a ninth generation Canadian of Indian descent about his experience living in Canada to that of India. Perceptions of Canadian identity does not recognize Indian descent as a traditional trait of Canadian identity, though Indians have been in Canada for over a century. There is a hierarchy order of cultures in Canada (Judge, 2003). This hierarchy views racial minorities with less value. Sikhs such as Sukhi will be treated differently and negatively because of this hierarchy.

For the full report, read here:

The United States

Last month, when I wrote about Nikki Haley (neé Nimrata Randhawa) her conversion to Christianity had the Sikh community abuzz. Specifically, whether or not she was forced to convert or she converted because of political expediency. From Illume Magazine, there is some context:

Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, Nikki Haley converted from Sikhism to Christianity when she was 24, before marrying her husband. The couple were married in two separate ceremonies, one Sikh and one Christian. In 2004, she told the Charlotte Observer that her family attends “both” Sikh and Christian services. Since then, she has emphasized her Christianity.

“She claims to be a Christian but also attends a Sikh temple and was married in a Sikh ceremony, so a lot of people can’t figure how you can claim both,” aid Ray Popham, pastor of Oasis Church International in Aiken, SC. “I think she needs to be straight up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front.”

Tony Beam, host of the radio show “Christian Worldview Today” and a Christian pastor who supports Haley’s opponent in the race, questioned Haley’s Christianity on his program. “Once you commit to Christianity, it excludes other religions. I am not saying she is not who she says she is, but I do know those questions are being raised.”

Haley’s campaign has updated her website to confront these charges. After some people complained that her faith in “the power and grace of Almighty God” left it open which “God” she believed in, her website was changed to emphasize her specific “faith in Christ.”

Haley has confronted similar attacks in the past. In 2004, her opponent Rep. Larry Koon mailed voters a letter pointing out her full Indian maiden name. An email campaign also falsely called Haley a Buddhist, and in some messages a Muslim.

There have been so many more instances of hatred and employment-based discrimination against Sikhs in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, because of laws pertaining to religious liberties, Sikhs have been on the winning and losing side of disputes when it comes to taking their employers to court. In one instance:

In most employment disputes involving Sikh religious practices, the outcome depends on the reasons the employer gives for not allowing employees to wear a turban, facial hair or kirpan. If the employer can show that the rule is necessary to protect the safety of employees or the public, the employer usually prevails. One 1984 case involved a Sikh whose job potentially exposed him to toxic gases. The employer required all employees in this position to be clean shaven because facial hair interferes with the use of a gas mask, and employees might need to use a gas mask in an emergency. The Sikh employee asked for an exemption, but the employer refused. Instead, the employer offered him a lower-paying position that did not involve potential exposure to toxic gases. The employee filed a discrimination lawsuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with the employer, ruling that the employer’s concern about workplace safety justified the decision not to exempt the Sikh employee from the ban on facial hair.

In another:

The most difficult and controversial cases involve employers who refuse to accommodate Sikh practices because, they say, customers prefer employees that have a certain “look.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that customer preference is not a sufficient reason to deny an employee’s request to wear religious attire.

Some courts have agreed with the EEOC’s position, but others have said that employers may use customer preference as a defense. For example, in 1981 a U.S. district court in Georgia rejected a Sikh restaurant worker’s request for an exemption from a ban on facial hair. The restaurant claimed that customers were uncomfortable with beards on those who prepare and serve food and that an exemption for the Sikh employee would result in lost business. The court sided with the employer. In a 2002 case, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that an airline did not discriminate against a Sikh employee when it refused to let him wear a turban while serving in a customer service position. The court said that the airline satisfied its obligation under Title VII by offering the employee alternate positions that had no face-to-face contact with customers.

Gurjot Kaur, a Civil Rights lawyer who was a former staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition in New York City, has written extensively about the right of Sikh Americans to be free from discrimination when it comes to being able to work and be an observant Sikh.

Gurjot Kaur is a HuffPost contributor and a licensed Attorney

In her her article about the Supreme Court’s Abercrombie Decision Kaur writes that:

This is a game changer for religious liberty in the workplace, especially for turbaned and bearded Sikh-Americans who have faced increased violence since 9/11, are frequently mistaken for members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and are subject to greater levels of employment discrimination.

For instance, imagine that Sarabjit, a turbaned and bearded Sikh man, tries to get a position as a pharmaceutical sales representative at a company that requires its employees to be “clean-shaven.” The Human Resources representative decides it would be too much of a hassle to try to accommodate his beard, which he suspects, along with the turban, might be religious. Perhaps this process requires approval from corporate, or perhaps the employer must go through a plethora of procedures. Perhaps the company is worried about how Sarabjit’s religious appearance will impact its clients and the company’s image. The HR representative decides not to bring up its “no beard” policy at the interview and fails to hire the otherwise qualified Sarabjit to avoid the inconvenience.

After the Supreme Court decision this week, the pharmaceutical company is far more likely to be liable for intentional religious discrimination. Religion cannot be a motivating factor in a company’s hiring decision. Thus, in our example, because the employer suspected that the turban and beard were religious articles, and he failed to hire the otherwise qualified applicant because he did not want to go through the hassle of accommodating his religion, under the Supreme Court’s recent decision, the pharmaceutical company will likely be liable for intentional religious discrimination. This unprecedented interpretation gives visibly religious minorities added protection in the hiring process.

Additionally, the Supreme Court has now made it much harder for employers to successfully use defenses aimed at keeping those who look “different” out of the workplace. This includes the “neutral workplace policy” defense, such as uniform and grooming standards that apply to every employee. Sure, these policies sound valid and nondiscriminatory at first. After all, like Justice Scalia noted, an employer has the right to impose a “no headwear” policy across the board and on paper, such policies don’t appear to target any particular group. That is, until you consider that in practice, employers use neutral policies to keep out entire communities from the workplace, and often based on unsubstantiated (and even prejudicial) concerns about its brand, customer preference, or other business matters.

You can follow Gurjot Kaur here.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued the ruling Friday in Washington, D.C., saying 20-year-old Iknoor Singh’s adherence to his religious beliefs would not diminish his ability to serve in the military.

“I didn’t believe it at first when I heard about the decision,” said Singh, who lives in the New York City borough of Queens.

He told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday: “It was kind of surreal. This is something I have been fighting for for two or three years. I’m excited and nervous; very excited to learn.”

Singh, who will be a junior next fall studying finance and business analytics at Hofstra University on Long Island, said he has had a lifelong interest in public service. He speaks four languages — English, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu — and he said he wants to work in military intelligence.Data on employment-based discrimination has been very limited.

In another case, a Sikh- American doctor in Tennessee sued his employer after it became clear that he was staring down the barrel of employment discrimination based off of his religious expression. The Sikh Coalition has been heavily involved.

The suit alleges that Dr. Singh — an observant Sikh physician and father who keeps a religiously mandated turban and beard — was denied a neurology job after the employer and recruiter inquired into his religious appearance.

The suit further alleges that as part of the 2014 hiring process, the employer, a Tennessee-based medical group, along with its recruiter, expressed interest and concern about the way Dr. Singh looked. Although in phone interviews the recruiter praised Dr. Singh’s credentials, he was abruptly denied further interviews after he submitted photographs of himself, along with additional information on Sikhs and Sikhism. The job then remained vacant.

Clearly with the world before COVID-19 and in the world we are in now, turbans and hair have become the new battleground for how much space we can take up in our true authentic forms.

Research on Psychological Outcomes of Sikh Americans who experience discrimination

In a study conducted in the Richmond Hill, Queens area of New York City, where the Punjabi American population is the highest, researchers wanted to understand the relationship between discrimination and the physiological/psychological. Here are some of their findings:

  • Cardiovascular disease and chronic illnesses are linked with chronic stress exposure and ethnic minority status (Williams et al., 1997). Thus, elevated BMI, higher waist-to-hip ratio, and hypertension were selected because they may be related to discrimination-related stress (Gee, G.C., Ro, A., Gavin, A., & Takeuchi, D.T., 2008; Lewis, T.T., Williams, D.R., Tamene, M., & Clark, C.R., 2014). To identify how exposure to discrimination may have manifested through several stress-related pathways, we collected direct, physiological data as well as self-reported health measures associated with chronic disease.
  • (1) demographics: age, gender, employment status, number of years living in the United States, health insurance status, income, and education, (2) acculturation-related factors: languages spoken, country of birth, and (3) social support factors: family/friend support, marital status.
  • The independent variable, self-reported discrimination was measured using the Williams et al. (1997) “Everyday discrimination” scale. The EDS is a widely used, reliable, and valid 9-item scale evoking frequency responses on perceived unfair treatment which include receiving poorer service at stores or being treated with less courtesy. Total scores ranged from 0–45 on a 5-point likert scale, with higher EDS scores reflecting more frequent experiences of discrimination. Attributing self-reported discrimination to a particular characteristic such as race or was not included in the EDS score. However, one follow-up question asked participants if they experienced discrimination because of race-related factors, gender, age, height/weight, income level, or English language competency.
  • In addition, the author’s extensive prior knowledge of the community guided the process of addressing missing data, in that it was well known that this Sikh AI community had overall lower income status (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). The SF-36 (Cronbach’s alpha = .91), Everyday Discrimination Scale (Cronbach’s alpha = .76), and social support scales (Cronbach’s alpha = .68) demonstrated acceptable internal reliability.
  • The EDS is a widely used, reliable, and valid 9-item scale evoking frequency responses on perceived unfair treatment which include receiving poorer service at stores or being treated with less courtesy. Total scores ranged from 0–45 on a 5-point likert scale, with higher EDS scores reflecting more frequent experiences of discrimination. Attributing self-reported discrimination to a particular characteristic such as race or was not included in the EDS score. However, one follow-up question asked participants if they experienced discrimination because of race-related factors, gender, age, height/weight, income level, or English language competency.
  • Since 9/11, thousands of reports document that Sikhs AIs have endured hate crimes, workplace discrimination, school bullying, and religious and racial profiling especially at airport facilities (The Sikh Coalition, 2014). Sikh AIs, particularly those living in ethnic enclaves, may also be discriminated against if traditional clothing is worn, which is typically an additional sign of minority status. Given the salience of discrimination for minority populations in general, and the well-established links with poor health, studies that examine how such discrimination may be influencing the health of Asian American subgroups who are especially vulnerable, like Sikh AIs, are sorely needed.
  • The purpose of the current study was to address the gap in our understanding of the association between discrimination and health outcomes among Sikh AIs. Specifically, the study examined the relationship between discrimination and mental and physical health outcomes in adult Sikh AIs who lived in the Metropolitan New York City (NYC) area. Given that Sikh AIs are likely to present with outward markers of ethnic minority status, we hypothesized that when accounting for demographic, social support, and acculturation-related covariates (Gee, 2002) discrimination would be related to a wide range of health outcomes among Sikh AIs. We hypothesized that (1) Discrimination would be positively associated with poorer self-reported (a) physical and (b) mental health; and (2) Discrimination would be positively associated with markers of cardiovascular disease, including higher BMI, higher waist-to-hip ratio, and increased odds of diastolic and systolic hypertension.
  • However, since direct, physiological health outcomes have been found to be associated with discrimination in some studies with African Americans, it was expected that SRD would be associated with physiological data (BMI, WHR, and hypertension) among Sikh AIs. This null finding was unexpected given the Sikh AIs have experienced in addition to phenotypic susceptibility (e.g., displaying identifiable markers of cultural/religious ethnic minority status such as turbans and head scarves). Although turban/scarf wearing or other cultural markers were not evaluated as a potential source of discrimination, those who wore turbans/scarves in public reported higher levels of discrimination compared to those who did not wear turbans/scarves in public. Notably, Sikh AI males may have reported higher levels of discrimination in this study as they are more likely to wear turbans in public than Sikh AI women are to wear head scarves in public.

In the diaspora, it is so critical to have many more sources of information when it comes to understanding how we can weed out discrimination towards Sikh Americans. Even though we have legal, legislative and non-profits studying the field employment-based discrimination, the lack of information around the mental health of turban wearing men in the Sikh faith is a sorely needed avenue for exploration.


From being on the battle fields of both World Wars to driving buses in European cities, Sikhs have faced an uphill task in being able to keep their religious articles of faith. The labor movement by Sikhs to protest the conditions of their employment were evident in the story of the British bus driver who shattered the norms of British society and challenged the fact that Britian was not “ready” to see a Sikh man being so visible in the public eye.

According to an interview with the BBC, Mr. Tarsem Singh Sandhu talks about what life was like in Wolverhampton when having a turban wasn’t accepted. He says:

Soon after arriving, he was pinned down by uncles who cut his hair against his will.

He would never get a job with a turban, he was told.

At 23, he began working as a bus driver with Wolverhampton Transport Committee which at the time employed 823 drivers, 411 of whom were Indian.

In order to get employment, Sikhs would cut their hair so they would hace a chance of employment.

Mr. Singh also notes that:

After he was suspended in 1967, Mr Sandhu tried to gain the support of his union, Sikh community groups and local gurdwaras.

“They only had one thing to say,” Mr Sandhu remembers. “No.”

“Some [Sikh] people supported me; they thought we have done something wrong, we have made a mistake [by cutting their hair], but at least there is one young man who stood up for what is right and we must support him,” Mr Sandhu said.

“Others thought ‘we’ve come to work in this country and he’s creating problems’.”

All had signed the uniform policy, agreeing to come to work clean shaven and wearing the uniform cap. None of them wore a turban.

During the British Raj, turbans were accepted as normal. Millions of Sikhs fought for Britain during both world wars, forgoing helmets for their turbans.

A march through Wolverhampton drew 6,000 Sikhs from across the country to the town hall, demanding change.

The message was also spreading overseas: A 50,000-strong march was organised through Delhi in support of Mr Sandhu and Mr Jolly.

This goes to show that England valued Sikhs more when they were fighting for the British empire but once they became more active in everyday roles such as driving buses and taxi’s then it became a cause for alarm that their turbans would be ‘too visible’ and would normalize, humanize and show Sikhs as everyday people outside of being known as warriors for the empire.

Most of the dialogue almost always inevitably comes down to Sikhs in law enforcement, the military, the medical profession, in addition to other public-facing roles that their turbans might catch the eye of a racist person of society.

According to UK figures that are more recently available as of 2018 in the British Sikh Report, the stigmas that come with being a turban wearing Sikh man contribute to a mental health crisis that is mostly invisible. They write that:

Sikh men may be reluctant to talk about mental health, but it is clear that men do suffer from mental ill health due to the pressure of family, work or even discrimination. Racial harassment, something that particularly affects Sikh, turban wearing men, and which has become more evident in the UK since the EU Referendum of 2016 (23) is known to cause depression, anxiety and self-isolation.

It is also noted that:

However, since 2010, there has been increasing public discussion and focus on the issue, particularly around funding and ensuring health providers can deal with this growing problem in a super-diverse UK, where according to the 2011 UK Census, 14% of the population are BAME groups. The Asian/Asian British is the largest ethnic minority sub-group that comprise of the main non-Christian religious groups, including 2.7 million Muslims, 817,000 Hindus and 432,000 Sikhs.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that mental illness was prevalent amongst the first wave of male settlers who would have had to adjust quickly to an ‘alien’ environment without the support of family networks, face racism and isolationism due to language barriers, and would have been under severe pressure to earn money to send home. Many Sikh men turned to alcohol to cope.5 After British immigration laws were tightened in the 1960s, wives, children, parents and other relatives joined the male Sikhs. In line with traditional Punjabi culture, women generally stayed at home while the men went out to work

In a study conducted by the British nonprofit Taraki, they found the gendered differences in the willingness to access mental health care.

In the United Kingdom, it was found by the UK Government that:

75% of suicides in the United Kingdom involve the death of a man whilst suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

Coupled with the differences in being able to ask for mental health care, finding it in a culturally sensitive environment, and the lack of research around the impact of discrimination experienced by Sikh men who wear turbans, it is really hard to point out the extent of the issue in our communities.

One thing is for sure though, on this Labor Day, we recognize the organizing and fight back of Sikh men and women who have fought for their right to a livable wage, stable working conditions, and the right to keep their kesh and earn money for the roti they will be feeding their families with.

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Navjot Pal Kaur

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