The Motley News

Untying His Patka: Hair and Sikhism

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**Guest Post: Avneet Singh**

Waris Ahluwalia—actor, designer, writer 

I envy the way most girls can throw their hair back into an easy, functional ponytail. My waist-length hair requires at least two black hair-ties and the occasional scolding before staying put atop my head. And just because it forms a ponytail or a bun doesn’t ensure survival of an updo. Many workouts have ended early because my hair slowly fell from its formerly secure position into a free-flowing creation a la Pocohantas running in the wind.
Though I have a complicated relationship with my hair, I can’t begin to understand the daily issues my brother faces. As Sikhs, both men and women keep their hair long. We women can employ an arsenal of bobby pins, hairbands, and clips to keep our long hair fashionable; we’re always excited when long hair comes back into style because we can participate. Sikh men, on the other hand, tie their hair into a turban or patka (top knot covered with cloth). It can be physically uncomfortable in addition to being very visible. And we all know how America feels about turban-wearing men.

My brother is a successful 16-year-old man. He read my Calculus textbooks when I was home from college and took his high school team to a district competition in varsity tennis for the first time in a decade. Seemingly impermeable to the potential missteps of high school, my brother built his reputation on his intelligence, curiosity, and compassion for others. Despite his patka and growing beard, my brother proved immune to standard high school bullying. In fact, his reputation preceded him such that people rarely bothered him at all.
He and I connected in the realm of science and logic, choosing to discuss Schrodinger over girls. When I argue with my parents, exercising my “first-born” muscles, my brother usually steps in to mediate. I’ve chastised my father on more than one occasion for failing to give my brother the emotional support he needs. We advocate for each other, acting in the other’s best interests even if it requires going against our parents.
So why has he chosen to cut his hair? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve watched him obsess over the precise folds of his patka for years, frustrated by a few hairs out of place or the imperfections of the knots that hold the cloth atop his head. And the problems only worsened as his hair grew longer. My father, having experienced similar troubles in his adolescence, encouraged my brother to consider cutting his hair. In a way, my father hopes that alleviating this stress will set my brother up for success in his adult years. My mother, on the other hand, won’t even entertain the conversation. She’s accompanied him to religious conference and camps since he was 5; to her, his cultural and religious identity is tied up inside his patka. 
Later this week, between bottling his home-brewed ginger ale and debating the merits of Modernism, I will take my brother to a salon in Columbus. I’ll watch as the hopefully-talented hairdresser dismantles 16 years of religious belief, community influence, inconvenience, and pain. And I’ll reassure him that he made the right decision for his life. I will be there beside him to give him support and strength. I’ll probably take him for some lunch while I’m at it. 
My brother is a great kid. With this decision, he’s just beginning to tap into his own mental fortitude to take ownership of his body and his life. I realize that most Sikhs in our community, our mother included, won’t understand this. To those in our world, cutting our hair means that we aren’t strong enough in the Sikh faith to conquer the struggles of looking different. On the contrary, my brother has enough faith in himself to act in his best interests. Frankly, I admire him for it.

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Author: Charish Halliburton

Writer and Editor for The Motley News

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