When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Sikh community did what we always do. We mobilized. We served free communal meals in the tradition of langar, we provided aid, we even offered up our own spaces for the benefit of public health. This is the Sikh practice of seva, or “selfless service,” in action. Canada is familiar with this type of mobilization from its Sikh community. It is widely recognized and respected — perhaps even expected.
This history of Sikhs serving our nation makes it even harder to watch Canadians praise the erasure of an important facet of the Sikh faith.
It has long been suggested that masks required for medical staff, including the popular N95 model, do not fit bearded individuals. This has been repeated in news coverage of the pandemic, subtly framing the Sikh religious practice of keeping kesh (unshorn hair and beards) as an obstacle to saving lives.
One such example is the story of a Sikh doctor in Montreal who made the personal choice to shave his beard, which must be kept uncut in accordance with his Sikh faith, to wear a face mask required for work with COVID-19 patients. While the Sikh community decried this as an example of the state failing to provide front-line workers with appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment), media paraded Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja’s choice as a “sacrifice.”
But he never should have had to make the choice between keeping his faith and serving fellow Canadians.
Focusing on beards as a problem forces a spotlight on Sikh health-care workers. Praising the shaving of Sikh beards draws on the “model minority” label to pressure Sikhs into conforming to Western ideals of what is deemed normal. The discrimination in this should not be understated.
This harmful perception overlooks the fact that there are Sikh health-care workers who have passed “fit tests” wearing masks with beards, and ignores that other factors can determine the fit of a mask, such as the shape of one’s face.
Nevertheless, if a beard is an issue when it comes to medical masks, technology provides answers. Our own Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan has led changes in this area, having invented a gas mask compatible with beards. I myself benefited from this innovation over three years of service with the Canadian Armed Reserve Forces as a combat engineer.
In the medical world, any bearded doctors that have issues with masks are usually directed towards using a powered air-purifying respirator, which is readily available online.
Why his employer was unable to help Dr. Saluja acquire one, I do not know — especially when groups like the World Sikh Organization of Canada have been helping Sikh doctors source such equipment. Support for Sikh health-care workers like Dr. Saluja is available. What I do know is that the resulting public relations campaign and YouTube videos glamorizing his decision reveal large sections of Canada are still ignorant about the Sikh faith.
Educating Canadians about kesh
When non-Sikhs ask us about our faith, their questions most commonly concern Dastaar (Sikh turbans) and our unshorn beards. Some of our most recognized names have even gone out of their way to educate Canadians on the subject.
It is important for all Canadians to remember that it is not the job of every Sikh to explain why kesh is so important in our faith — however, as an educator of the Sikh faith, it literally is mine. So let me try.
Kesh is the insignia of the Sikh. Sure, not everyone that identifies as Sikh maintains unshorn hair. However, it should be understood by all that at some point on the path of Sikhi, keeping kesh is mandatory. For a Sikh, refraining from cutting hair is submission to our most natural state of being, a connection to the divinity of creation. Kesh is the most visible part of the Sikh uniform, which bestows upon us an inescapable responsibility to live up to Sikh ideals. That is part of what drives the community into the incredible acts of seva we see across the world.
“I cannot stand by and allow such a key aspect of the Sikh faith to be reduced to some aesthetic decision.”
Kesh is so important in the faith that there are countless stories of Sikhs choosing death before having hair removed. The tale of Bhai Taru Singh comes to mind.
This revered Sikh figure was serving langar to his community at a time when it was outlawed by the tyrannical Mughal in charge at the time. He was caught and sentenced to having his hair cut off. Bhai Taru Singh prayed that he would not be separated from his kesh. As the story goes, the punisher found it impossible to cut his hair, and had to scalp Bhai Taru Singh instead — a fate he readily chose before losing his sacred kesh.
My emphasis on the importance of kesh is not to judge Dr. Saluja’s decision. But as an educator on the Sikh faith, I cannot stand by and allow such a key aspect of the Sikh faith to be reduced to some aesthetic decision playing second fiddle to selfless service.
It is an insult to the faith to suggest that Dr. Saluja’s actions fit with Sikhi’s deep-rooted teachings around social reform, especially whilst Canadian health-care workers of all backgrounds are being forced to risk their lives due to a lack of investment in PPE. Guru Nanak Dev Ji showed the importance of challenging governments that discriminate against minorities, rather than asking minorities to conform to avoid problems. This trend was carried on by all the Sikh Gurus, because they recognized that, just like the process of growing a beard, equality requires long-term discipline and cultivation.
Despite inferences to the opposite, the Sikh spirit of seva is not separate from the physical identity of a Sikh. It is this identity which means that a Sikh cannot hide from also standing up for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, or Canada’s indigenous community, or any marginalized people, just like Canadian Sikhs will now support health-care workers’ rights in obtaining appropriate PPE.
It is this spirit of justice and service that will benefit Canada more than any short-term “sacrifice” which covers up bigger issues of governance. Canada must embrace the Sikh faith, hairs and all.
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