Livleen, 3, foreground, wears a turban, as does her mother Sukhpreet Kaur, 28, left, and her brother Jasjot, 5. More women reportedly wear the turban in North America than in Punjab, India.
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
Sometimes she is in the subway when someone pops the question. Other times she is in a fast food lineup. Once she was watching a movie in a theatre when a man came up and whispered: “Why do you wear a turban?”
Mandeep Kaur Uppal quickly took him outside and explained that she is a Sikh and wearing a turban is a part of her religion.
“I’m never annoyed because I want people to know why I wear it and how important it is for me.”
At a time when many young Sikh men are cutting their hair in a desperate bid to assimilate, Uppal, 28, is among a small but growing number of Sikh women in the Greater Toronto Area who wear the turban.
There are no numbers available, but local Sikh leaders estimate at least a few hundred women wear the turban. In fact, there are more women who wear the turban in North America than in Punjab, India, where the majority of Sikhism followers live.
“People are way more traditional here,” said Shaminder Singh, a Mississauga-based Sikh scholar. “They are worried about losing their religion and culture and so become more orthodox,” he said. “It’s a way for some people to protect their religion.”
Sikhism dates back to 15th-century India. Adherents are forbidden to cut their hair, considered a visible testament to connection with their creator. The turban was adopted to manage long hair and make Sikhs easily identifiable.
There are varying views on whether Sikh women are required to wear the turban. They are required to keep their hair but Singh says there is nothing in history that indicates they have to wear a turban, too.
Uppal says she wears the turban because “our gurus said all Sikhs should wear it, and that includes women.”
She didn’t always wear one.
Uppal was baptized about 15 years ago when she was a student at West Humber Collegiate Institute. For two years, she covered her head with a scarf but many mistook it for a hijab, the scarf worn by some Muslim women. That’s when she decided to wear a turban. “That’s my identity,” she said.
At first, it took her about half an hour to tie it up — now, she can do it in minutes, with her eyes closed.
The turban that Sikh women wear is rounded, not pointed like the ones worn by men. They come in a variety of colours and styles, including polka-dot and tie-dyed. Some places even sell ready-made turbans. But Uppal usually wears a black one. “It’s not about fashion . . . it’s about following my religion.”
Fashion is the last thing on the minds of turban-wearing women but they admit they “like standing out in a crowd… People always remember me,” said Preetinder Sehgal, a 20-year-old York University student who has worn a turban for eight years.
“I’m one of the handful of women on campus (who wear a turban),” she said. “And let’s be honest, I never have to worry about my hair . . . it’s always in place.”
Assimilation is always an issue for immigrants, said Sukhpreet Kaur, 28, who has worn a turban since she was a toddler. But the mother of two says integration is not about having to give up one’s identity or religion. “It’s about values — not about religion or how you dress up.”
Kaur’s son, Jasjot, 5, and daughter, Livleen, 3, also wear turbans.
When Livleen started playschool recently, one of the first questions she was asked was why she wears a turban. “I’ve told her that she’s a princess and wears a crown on her head. That’s what she should tell everyone.”
Kaur, whose family just moved from Windsor to Brampton, doesn’t think it’s too much to explain for a 3-year-old. “She likes wearing the turban and, believe me, kids are curious and ask questions. There’s never been any problem.”
One of her favourite stories about Livleen and her turban is from last year. The Ontario Khalsa Darbar, one of North America’s largest Sikh temples at Derry and Dixie Rds. in Mississauga, holds a turban-tying contest for young men every year.
Livleen wanted to participate but it was only for men. Her parent took her anyway and the feisty 3-year-old was given a special appreciation award. “She was very happy and I was really proud of her,” said Kaur.
Women who wear the turban face as much of a challenge as men do, said Pardeep Singh Nagra, manager of employment equity with the Toronto District School Board. Nagra visits schools to explain the significance of a turban and demonstrates how it is tied.
“Women are asked the same questions as men, and what I tell them is: Answer questions with a big smile and the best of your ability,” said Nagra, adding that the number of women who wear turbans is increasing.
“There are 100 per cent more women with turbans now than when I was in school,” he said. “That’s quite encouraging.”