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Otherization of Sikh Women, a guest post by Jasmin Kaur

Today we are honored to host this moving guest post by author Jasmin Kaur.

Eyes wide with apprehension, lips parted with a sudden inhale, it was the same look of shock I’d grown used to. On this particular occasion, the white woman’s fingers furiously typed on her phone, perhaps to a friend. Her gaze bounced to each of my friends’ turbans and beards and finally landed on me. I had heard that Australia could often be inhospitable to immigrants and people of colour, but I didn’t think that in Melbourne, one of its most diverse cities, people would display their discomfort at the sight of Sikhs so unabashedly. Among the dozen of us waiting to be seated at the restaurant, I was the only one from out of town.

As painfully familiar as the woman’s wide-eyed glance was the feeling of otherness. Of my heart thumping with a sudden desire to be invisible. I turned to my friend, whispering that we were being watched.  Then, my friend did something that I was too emotionally exhausted to do: she asked the woman why she was staring.

“I recognized Jasmin Kaur. I think I follow her on Instagram.”

After we had a thoughtful conversation with the woman and my friends commented on how wonderful it was that this reader recognized me half away across the world from home, my mind was still spinning. I’d had many emotionally intense run-ins with strangers before, but never anything like this. Never a person staring at me in public with nothing but a kind word to say.

When I chose to tie a dastaar (Sikh turban) back in high school, I knew it would come with attention. In fact, this identity was made to draw attention. When the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, formalized our visible identity, the dastaar was an important element in rendering Sikhs unique and distinguishable from members of other faith communities. As a child, I distinctly remember sitting on the fir-green carpet of our local gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) listening to a speaker explain the story of why it was so important for us to stand out. When the tenth Guru’s father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, attained martyrdom in defence of a persecuted group of Kashmiri Hindus, Guru Gobind Singh questioned whether many Sikhs were present to witness the event. No one was sure because no one could tell who, exactly, was Sikh. It was in this moment that the guru declared that they would make Sikhs so distinct that even in a crowd of thousands, we would be unmissable.

There is beauty in being unmissable, in being so in love with your sovereignty as a kaur (Sikh woman) that you declare it with a crown. But there is also struggle. Each time I step out of the comfort of my own home, I enter a world that views my body as an artifact. By this, I mean that I am constantly on display to be studied, critiqued and openly discussed by strangers, often as though I am not even there. As though I am an object that can’t talk back. When I step into public spaces, I constantly move as though I am bracing myself for a tidal wave. The glares, the stares, the hateful comments exist within the memory of my tense muscles, my thumping heart, my lowered gaze that is too tired to observe which strangers happen to be ogling today.

I grew up in Abbotsford, a large-enough city in BC, Canada with a strong Punjabi population. White people are familiar with us. They see us every single day. And yet, I seem to exist here as a perpetual surprise. The other day, after a long stretch of writing from my bedroom, I decided to switch things up and work from a coffee shop. As soon as I swung open the door, two tables of middle-aged and elderly white people halted their conversations to stare at me. Eight people, to be exact. Their eyes followed me to my table, their necks twisting to keep up with my movements, until I sat down and they could finally let me go.

This type of staring is a common occurrence throughout my day. I’ve gotten it since I entered middle school when I began to tie a ramaal, a small headscarf that is much more subtle than a dastaar. Sometimes when people stare, I’ll smile. This will result in them either smiling back in embarrassment or looking away in surprise. As a woman of colour and a Sikh woman specifically, I don’t think I owe strangers a constantly positive, pleasant, model-minority attitude, though. Just like you, I could be having a bad day. Just like you, I could be caffeine-deprived, exhausted and just looking to quietly reach my next destination. I don’t need to be on all the time, maintaining my best “customer-service” attitude for strangers who consider me nothing more than “the other”. I don’t need to prove my humanity to white people. I don’t owe you a smile for your stares.

The stares and glares are irritating, but they are definitely not the worst. I’ve had more than my fair share of overtly racist run-ins with strangers, from local drivers shouting “terrorist!” at me as I walk down the street, to train passengers in Australia swearing at me for sitting next to them to store-clerks in Spain serving the white people standing behind me in line and simply pretending I don’t exist. These experiences add up, they pile one on top of the other and pack themselves at the back of my mind. They don’t make me want to remove my dastaar but they do remind me of the violence that comes from non-conformity in a world that seeks to synthesize everyone into a singular image.

“Usually when people stare at me in public spaces, it’s because of my Sikh identity.”

When I shared this with the white woman at the restaurant, she was flustered. Shocked to hear that I could be treated so badly by strangers. The two of clearly experienced the world through very different eyes.

I was quiet when we finally sat down to eat, trying to make sense of this strange concoction of emotions that arose from the interaction. Like many people of colour who experience microaggressions and overt racism in public spaces, my experiences have left me with a sense of guardedness. I don’t feel bad about it, though: I have more than enough reason to be anxious.   

Jasmin Kaur is the author of the YA poetry & prose release When You Ask Me Where I’m Going (October 1; HarperCollins), her debut book of poetry & prose that tells the story of 18-year old Kiran as she flees a history of trauma in Punjab and raises her daughter, Sahaara, while living undocumented in North America. Kaur’s writing is a powerful salve and formidable reclamation of self-acceptance and love in a world that often ignores, erases, or ridicules women of color and undocumented immigrants.

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