It's hard to see why in this age of laser hair removal and depilatory creams, a young woman would want to retain her facial hair. And a considerable amount of that too, that shows up in a beard and side locks. But Balpreet Kaur a neuroscience student at Ohio State University, who not only has all this but wears a turban too, because she is a baptized Sikh that forbids her from removing body hair says, "this is who I am”. Take it or leave it. Perhaps JK Rowling, the celebrity author who has run afoul of the Sikh clergy for disparaging remarks about the facial hair of a Sikh girl in her latest book A Casual Vacancy had someone like Balpreet in mind when she crafted the character. Perhaps, she, who claims she did much research on Sikhisim before including a Sikh family in the plot of her book, thought that like the real Balpreet, her fictional Sukhwinder Kaur would be just as nonchalant about jibes from classmates on her manly appearance. But unlike the fictional character who got support from the Punjab based Sikh clergy, Balpreet fought her battle alone and came out a winner.
Perhaps it is the intolerance of the times that we live in that shaped the conservative response, the one that had the Sikh clergy issuing threats to Rowling. And then, the real Sikh woman, Balpreet, who is endowed with generous facial hair, got up and responded in a manner that has left not only her tormentors but also conservative Sikhdom tongue tied. She demonstrated, in the process, that the conservative response is not necessarily the popular one , or the most effective.
To briefly recap, for those who do not know the story already, Balpreet, was looking down at her iPhone while standing in queue at the airport when, someone took a picture of her and posted it on Reddit an online social portal. Within no time it went viral with people making unpleasant comments on her gender, her beard and also her turban.
Balpreet responded by first registering herself on Reddit and then joined the thread to say, “ Yes, I'm a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body - it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will….. I'm not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it's who I am,” she wrote.
Her mature response won her hundreds of admirers across the globe and the person who posted the picture also stepped in to apologise not just to Balpreet but to all Sikhs.
Back home in Punjab, the birthplace of the Sikh religion and home to its apex clergy, any slur on Sikhs, their ways and habits, real or imagined is a reason to breathe fire, haul up the offending before the Golden Temple, where the leaders of the Sikh panth wag a remonstrating finger and issue threats to ban or burn. The latest to face their ire was J.K. Rowling whose book has a character Fats, who on page 120, describes his classmate Sukhwinder, as, "mustachioed, yet large-mammaried, scientists remain baffled by the contradictions of the hairy man-woman". The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) the elected body that manages Sikh gurudwaras and which is in charge of propagation and preservation of the religion, has demanded that Rowling delete the " slanderous" portions from the copies distributed in India, or else….
A few weeks earlier, the Ajay Devgun starrer Son of Sardar also ran into trouble and actors Ajay Devgun and Sanjay Dutt scrambled to assuage the Sikh clergy at the Golden Temple. There, surprisingly, it was the revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia, brother in law of Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, who was the mediator. Dutt called up his friend and classmate, Sukhbir and the matter was sorted out after Ajay offered to delete the objectionable portions. So often does the clergy react to ‘objectionable’ depictions of Sikhs in movies or television serials that all that these fulminations evoke now is just a few yawns in Punjab. It is not without significance that the SGPC’s propensity to take umbrage to real or imagined slights has in recent years grown in proportion to its declining hold on the Sikh flock. It hasn’t for instance been able to do much to check the widespread trend to shave hair among ordinary Sikhs, to the extent that the turban — the most visible symbol of a Sikh’s identity — is in danger of becoming just a ceremonial vestment to be reserved for special occasions. Nor has there been any visible effort to check the migration of Sikhs to deras and godmen, considered anathema to purists who believe in the supremacy of the Guru Granth Sahib.
It is only the Sikh intelligentsia, a handful of academics and writers who are critical of what they view as the SGPC’s ‘weary attempts to gain relevance’ by crying wolf at every unflattering reference to Sikh symbols in the entertainment industry or in books. By their own admission their voices don’t carry much weight because they are not the kind who get elected to the SGPC, now reduced to being just a religious arm of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. Secondly, their focus on ills like casteism and ritualism that have crept into the religion, as against displays of touchiness about religious symbols is not liked by the conservatives who call the shots. Amidst the din that usually accompanies the SGPC or the Akal Takht’s finger- wagging to errant film producers and writers who dare to experiment artistically with Sikh symbols like the turban, hair or the kirpan, those from within the community who say that such prickliness is a regressive sign of insecurity that can do more harm than good, is usually drowned.
It has taken a young Sikh girl to demonstrate that the best way to react to an offensive slur is not necessarily a sharp rebuke or a demand to ban it. She faced it head on with a reasoned, measured reply that (if one were to go by the appreciative reactions to her post) surprisingly has got a whole lot of people interested in Sikhisim. Perhaps the SGPC ought to co-opt the likes of Balpreet Kaur to arrest the decline of this liberal, generous faith that holds selfless service and 'sarbat da bhalla’ (common good of all) above all else.